The Pittsburgh Penguins are still well in command in the Eastern Conference but didn’t help themselves with a pair of recent lackluster efforts against clubs that are currently out of playoff contention.
The Penguins will try to avoid another such performance Monday night when they face a cellar-dwelling Buffalo Sabres team that cooled off a red-hot opponent in its most recent game.
Pittsburgh (36-14-2) is seven points ahead of Boston and Tampa Bay in the East, and it has a 15-point advantage on the New York Rangers in the Metropolitan Division. The Penguins padded their lead over the Rangers by scoring a combined 11 goals in wins over Montreal and the New York Islanders this past week but couldn’t keep that momentum going Saturday.
Pittsburgh fell 3-0 in Dallas and allowed two power-play goals in three short-handed situations. The Penguins had killed off 44 of 48 penalties in their prior 15 contests.
They also went 0 for 4 with a man advantage after converting 3-of-7 chances in their back-to-back wins.
"I thought we came out focused and skating hard, but we shot ourselves in the foot with a couple of plays," forward Craig Adams said. "We needed a couple big kills and we didn’t get them. It was hard to come back after that.
"Whether it’s a combination of desperation and focus, it hasn’t been there often enough every night."
The Penguins – who have won 14 of 15 at home – also failed to score on the power play or generate much offense in a 5-1 home loss to Florida last Monday. The Panthers are currently 15th in the East with only Buffalo (14-29-7) trailing them.
The Sabres are also 5-14-3 on the road but took a 5-2 victory in Columbus on Saturday. They stopped the Blue Jackets’ franchise-record, eight-game win streak while ending a 0-3-2 skid.
"It’s pretty cool. They’re one of the hottest teams in the NHL this month,” said center Cody Hodgson, who had a goal and an assist in the third period. "It feels nice to win, it doesn’t matter who it’s against. But it’s a little extra sweeter (against a good team)."
The Sabres have scored a league-low 91 goals but have tallied at least three in six consecutive games and 20 total. They allowed a combined 19 in their previous five contests, but U.S. Olympic goaltender Ryan Miller helped Buffalo prevail Saturday despite getting outshot 38-22.
Hodgson has a team-best four goals and three assists in the last six games, but the Sabres narrowly averted a shutout in their only matchup with Pittsburgh this season, scoring with 4:54 left in a 4-1 road loss Oct. 5.
Crosby registered the opening goal of that game, and Matt Niskanen assisted on both of his team’s two first-period scores. Chris Kunitz helped seal the win by converting a penalty shot in the third period.
The Penguins faced Sabres backup goaltender Jhonas Enroth in that game. Miller has allowed a combined three goals on 62 shots in back-to-back wins against Pittsburgh.
If Miller starts this game, he’ll try to end Crosby’s 15-game point streak against Buffalo. The Penguins star has nine goals and 15 assists during that run, including three goals and five assists in the past three matchups.
Hodgson has two goals and three assists during a more modest four-game point streak against Pittsburgh while Steve Ott has four goals and three assists in his last eight matchups.