There will be no shortage of pressure heading into tonight’s contest against the Penguins. Every game is like a playoff game at this point in the season and with Washington securing two points last night in Boston, Buffalo can ill afford to slip up. If Buffalo wins tonight, they regain the two point advantage they had previously with four games to play; if they lose, they fall into a tie with the Capitals for the final playoff spot with four games to play, essentially nullifying the impressive effort put forth against the Caps on Tuesday night. Buffalo’s remaining schedule sees a favorable matchup with a home and home against the Maple Leafs before taking on the arduous task of trying to steal two points from the Flyers and Bruins in their own buildings in the final two games of the season.
This is a strange time to stumble across the Penguins as they are certainly one of the most feared teams in the NHL but they’re coming off consecutive losses to the lowly 13th place Islanders. Prior to those two games, the Penguins had put together a streak which saw them win 16 out of 18 games.
It has not been confirmed but it was rumored that Brent Johnson would get the start tonight against Buffalo as Marc-Andre Fleury played last night against the Islanders. Johnson is 3-7-2 this season with a 3.17 GAA and .882 SV%. In six starts against the Sabres since the lockout, Johnson has one win to go along with a 6.44 GAA and .825 SV%. That is not a typo, he does indeed carry a 6.44 GAA against the Sabres. Needless to say, Johnson getting the nod tonight would be the greatest gift fans could ask for on fan appreciation night. Keep in mind, that has not been confirmed yet but we can only hope. Ryan Miller is expected to get the start tonight as he’s 4-0 in his last four starts with a 0.75 GAA and .977 SV%. Miller is 11-0-2 with a 2.03 GAA and .951 SV% over the last three seasons in games where he has faced 40+ shots which is a distinct possibility tonight. All lines and defense pairing remain the same tonight with the exception of Mike Weber stepping in in place of the injured Christian Ehrhoff to play with Alexander Sulzer as was reported by the Buffalo Sabres Twitter account.
- The Sabres recent offensive surge has been a welcomed sign for Sabres fans. Don’t get too excited though, the Sabres have averaged 4.4 GPG over the last five games, 3.67 GPG over the last nine games, but just 2.53 GPG over the course of the entire season. Certainly a good sign but Pittsburgh has averaged 3.25 over the course of the entire season. Hence, Buffalo’s recent offensive “surge” is not much higher than the Penguins have averaged over the course of the season. The Pens have averaged 4.5 GPG over their last 10 games and 4.18 GPG over their last 17 games, their offense is nothing you want to mess around with.
- James Neal has been one of the breakout stars of the NHL this season as he is on the verge of eclipsing 40 goals and 80 points for the first time in his career. In fact, his previous career highs were 27 goals and 55 points. Don’t be mistaken though, this is no fluke; James Neal came over from Dallas in a trade that sent Alex Goligoski the other way, Neal came with much fanfare and was expected to hit it off on the wing of Evgeni Malkin. It didn’t materialize last season as Neal only managed one goal in the final 20 games with the Penguins. The talented 24 year old really found his scoring touch this season and is enjoying a career year.
- Crosby appears to be fully healthy and back on track as he has recorded 13 points in nine games since his return from his much publicized concussion. Crosby has 25 points in 17 games this season overall. Interesting to note that he has just four goals in those 17 games after registering 32 goals in 41 games last season and 52 in 81 the year before that. Surely a bit rusty in certain areas of his game, it won’t be long before Sid the Kid finds his scoring touch.
- Rest should not be an issue as the Sabres last played Tuesday night and have only played that one game in the last five days. Pittsburgh is playing the second game of a back to back and the third game in three cities in four nights; fatigue could become an issue at some point in tonight’s game.
- Evgeni Malkin became the first player to notch 100 points this season, doing it in his 70th game. Geno has certainly produced quite the impressive season this year, a couple of those performances coming against Buffalo as he has tallied six points in his two games against Buffalo. This is nothing new as Malkin has recorded 20 points in his last 12 games played against Buffalo.
- Missing Christian Ehrhoff against this caliber of competition will be a huge blow to Buffalo’s defense. Mike Weber was not playing exceptionally well before he was scratched and it’s hard to imagine Lindy Ruff really relying on him for big minutes tonight. The problem with Pittsburgh becomes match-ups, you can put Regehr and Sekera out against Malkin/Neal, Myers and Leopold against Crosby, but then you still have to account for Jordan Staal. There is no easy line with Pittsburgh where you can simply throw out your bottom pairing defensemen for easy minutes. Mike Weber will need to step in tonight and be immediately effective, as he will certainly be tested.
- Pascal Dupuis is currently riding a 12 game point streak, quite an impressive streak for a player whose previous career high in points was 38 points. He’s now up to 24 goals and 52 points on the season, just another complimentary piece to that potent Penguins lineup.
- Kris Letang is as crucial a piece to the Penguins puzzle as any of their top offensive guns. He runs the game from the backend and, unfortunately, has run into some injury issues of late. He is battling a lower-body injury right now and will not play tonight. Letang has tallied 36 points in 47 games this season.
- Obligatory comment on Ennis-Stafford-Foligno: what else is there to say? These guys have been amazing and are one of the most exciting lines Ruff has put together in quite a while. It’s difficult to remember one line get more odd man rushes than this line and they are absolutely lethal once they get those chances. Lindy Ruff’s theory on their propensity for odd man rushes is that Ennis will start deep in their own zone, dragging opponents there, but he has the speed to beat them out of the zone and join the rush to make it an odd man break; makes some sense. Ennis has clearly been the fuel for this line with 22 points in his last 22 games as he has been dynamite since returning from injury.
- Matt Cooke has engineered quite the turnaround in his play this season. Once viewed as one of the dirtiest players in the league, Cooke has been squeaky clean this year; he’s taken his game far enough to be nominated for the Bill Masterton Trophy. The winner of the Masterton is the “player who best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship, perseverance, and dedication to hockey”. Meanwhile, All-Star Marc Savard still sits at home attempting to recover from his concussion. Jeremy White of WGR sums up things up quite well:
“Cooke deserves credit. He does not deserve a trophy. Playing hockey like a sane person does not make you the beacon of sportsmanship. A wake of concussions and careers altered in your past is best left in the past, but this present that he’s playing in…that’s called “being a hockey player”.