PITTSBURGH — The penalty killers were a major reason the Buffalo Sabres pulled off a surprising victory Saturday night in Columbus. They’re going to provide much more of the same spark tonight in Consol Energy Center if the Sabres have any chance against the top team in the Eastern Conference.
A big reason the Pittsburgh Penguins are the highest-scoring team in the East is because their power play is No. 1 in the NHL at 24.4 percent. But the Pens figure to be surly tonight after suffering a 3-0 loss Saturday in Dallas — and they’re on a 3-for-20 slump with the man advantage the last six games.
Buffalo’s PK unit, however, has been up to challenges of late. The Sabres killed off all four penalties they took in Saturday’s 5-2 win, allowed Columbus just one shot on goal combined on them and scored two short-handed goals in a game for the first time since 2007.
The Sabres are 12th in the NHL for the season at 82.9 percent and have gone 11 for 12 the last five games.
Goaltender Ryan Miller was huge Saturday with 36 saves but was duly impressed with the patience his team showed in front of him. That was especially true on the PK units.
“There were good reads and I thought we did a pretty good job on faceoffs,” Miller said after Saturday’s win. “Either the faceoffs were scrambled, where they’re not getting quite the jump they want out of it and spreading the puck too early, or we were able to get out there and push and pressure.
“Our penalty kill has been really organized and really smart. It’s been steadily improving all year and it’s done a nice job.”
The Sabres were particularly impressive on a third-period power play with Tyler Myers in the box, holding the Blue Jackets without a shot. And they were creating confusion in the Columbus zone during a first-period opportunity, with Christian Ehrhoff finally jumping on a loose puck for a short-handed goal in the final minute that gave the Sabres the lead for good.
“The coaching staff does a good job in letting these guys know what to expect,” coach Ted Nolan said of his assistants. “We had just played them less than 10 days ago so we kind of knew what they were going to do. We had a little lady luck on our side and you have to have strong goaltending and tonight was a combination of that.”
Miller was much sharper than the previous three games, when he had given up 10 goals, and credited some extra work with goaltending coach Jim Corsi as a reason why.
“I felt like I was inside the play a little bit more and reading off some of those plays they were trying to make with high tips or shots from the point,” Miller said. “The guys picked up coverage where I could sit back and wait on things, so it was a little bit better for me.”
“He was definitely on his game,” Ehrhoff said. “He made some good plays, even with the stick getting pucks out of there. It was the difference.”
Saturday’s shutout loss marked the third time in six games Penguins center Sidney Crosby has been held pointless. Crosby, however, continues to lead the league in scoring with 72 points (27 goals, 45 assists) and his team is 34-5-2 this year when he gets at least a point. When he’s blanked, the Pens are just 2-9.
Crosby has some crazy numbers against the Sabres. He has six goals and eight assists in the last seven games he’s played against Buffalo and Pittsburgh has won all seven. He also has a 15-game point streak against the Sabres (9-15-24) that dates to Dec. 29, 2007, and has a point in 21 of 23 career games against them.
Both teams took Sunday off rather than skate in the Penguins’ suburban practice facility because the Consol Center was being used for a professional wrestling card.
That means there will be no updates on the injuries suffered Saturday by Ville Leino and Drew Stafford until today’s morning skate. John Scott and Linus Omark was healthy scratches Saturday and could play tonight if either Stafford or Leino can’t go.
In goal, there’s a good chance Jhonas Enroth starts tonight because Miller has his worst career numbers against any opponent against Pittsburgh (7-11-3, 3.26 goals-against average and .888 save percentage). Enroth, meanwhile, is 1-3, 2.58 and .914 against Pittsburgh.
Enroth, however, is struggling mightily of late. He’s given up four goals in each of his last two starts to fall to 1-10-4 on the season. The Penguins are 21-4 at home this year and have won 14 of their last 15. They beat Enroth, 4-1, on Oct. 5.
Another reason to rest Miller is because the Sabres play again Tuesday when they host Washington in First Niagara Center. Miller certainly isn’t going to play three games in four days and he’s been lights out in two shootout wins against the Caps – stopping 77 of 79 shots, plus all nine shootout attempts against him.