Sabres-Penguins Preview

Their MVP hasn’t played in more than nine months, their former

scoring champ and Conn Smythe winner is still feeling the effects

of last season’s knee injury, and yet the Pittsburgh Penguins have

jumped out to their best start in 17 years.

They’ll be shorthanded again as they try to keep it going.

Sidney Crosby is still out and Evgeni Malkin won’t play either

Saturday night at Consol Energy Center as Pittsburgh tries to

extend its winning streak against the Buffalo Sabres to seven.

While the Penguins (3-0-2) received some good news Thursday when

Crosby was cleared for full contact, it’s uncertain when the 2007

Hart Trophy winner will be ready for game action as he continues

his comeback from concussion-like symptoms that have sidelined him

since Jan. 5.

Malkin, though, came back Thursday after missing two games with

lingering soreness in his surgically repaired right knee and

recorded two assists in a 3-2 overtime loss against Washington.

“Geno came back and he was flying tonight,” left wing James

Neal said after scoring twice.

While he looked good against the Capitals, Malkin’s knee is

still bothering him. He did not participate in Saturday’s morning

skate, and won’t play against the Sabres.

With Crosby out and Malkin hurting, Neal has done a great job

picking up the scoring load, tallying a league-best four goals to

help the club get off to its best start since opening 7-0-0 during

the lockout-shortened 1995 season.

“Coming in and getting accustomed to everything and becoming

good buddies with everybody is an adjustment and takes time,” Neal

told the Penguins’ official website. “I’m fortunate enough it’s

been easy here to come in. The guys are very welcoming and that

helps a lot.”

Neal, though, had just one goal and five assists in 20 games

last season following a Feb. 21 trade from Dallas. That score, plus

an assist, came in a 3-1 home win over Buffalo on March 8 when the

Penguins completed the four-game season sweep.

Marc-Andre Fleury, who started each of those and has is 5-0-0

with a 1.80 goals-against average in his last five starts against

Buffalo, should be in net Saturday after sitting out Thursday due

to flu-like symptoms.

The Penguins need a healthy Fleury as they open a stretch of

five games in eight days.

“The Sabres have been a good team. It should be a good

challenge,” he said.

Buffalo (2-1-0) hopes it’s up for the challenge as it kicks off

a four-game trip following Friday’s 4-3 loss to Carolina. Playing

for the first time since winning both its games in Europe, the

Sabres gave up a power-play goal to Jeff Skinner with 1:24 left –

just 57 seconds after Drew Stafford’s second score of the season

tied it.

Buffalo went 0 for 7 on the power play and surrendered a pair of

short-handed goals.

“It’s a tough one to handle,” Stafford said following the

Sabres’ first game in six days. “We need to clean up our power play

a little bit, take a little more responsibility and pride in not

letting teams get those short-handed chances.”

The Sabres have been solid by killing 11 of 13 penalties, but

they can’t afford to be a man down against the Penguins, whose six

power-play goals tie Ottawa for the league lead.

Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, who allowed a season-worst four

goals Friday, lost three games to the Penguins in 2010-11 and is

1-6-0 with a 3.70 GAA in his last seven starts in Pittsburgh.

The Penguins have won four straight and seven of eight at home

versus Buffalo.