Games against lower-echelon clubs like the Sabres have been a challenge for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but that seems to have changed heading into Thursday’s meeting in Buffalo.
The Penguins, vying for the Metropolitan Division title, fell to four teams well below the playoff cutoff during a six-game losing streak. That includes a 5-2 setback at home against Buffalo on Feb. 22.
That was before Pittsburgh smacked another also-ran, Ottawa, 7-3, on Tuesday to break the slump.
“Given our situation and other teams in (our) division — they keep winning — we definitely needed to win one here,” said winger Bryan Rust, who rang up his third career hat trick for Pittsburgh.
The seven goals were one fewer than the eight the Penguins scored in total during their six-game slide.
Even though it was one game, it apparently snapped Pittsburgh back to something closer to its identity.
“They’ve got something to show for their efforts. They’ve been playing hard,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I have to believe when you score seven goals it has to give our guys a boost of confidence, and it gives us something to build on.”
Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that in their win Tuesday the Penguins played with their full defense available for the first time since Nov. 30, with Brian Dumoulin and John Marino returning from injury. Marino opened the scoring in the game’s first minute.
“There are so many aspects of the game where they help us,” Sullivan said of Dumoulin, who plays with Kris Letang on the team’s top pairing, and Marino, a rookie who has established himself as a top-four defenseman.
“It just makes us a better team when they’re in the lineup.”
The next to return in a season marked by a multitude of injuries should be center Nick Bjugstad, who has played only 10 games and had core muscle surgery. He has been a full participant in practice this week and could be play Thursday.
Buffalo is coming off a four-game road losing streak on a trip through the Western Conference that culminated with a 3-1 loss Tuesday at Winnipeg.
“No points in four games. We’re looking that in the eye,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. “We’re not happy with that. We’re (coming) home grumpy and upset, but we also played some really good periods.
“We are a group in growth, a group with amazing fight-back.”
While Pittsburgh’s top line came alive Tuesday to combine for eight points — Sidney Crosby and Jason Zucker each had a goal and two assists, and Conor Sheary had a goal and an assist — the Sabres’ top forward trio of Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel and Victor Olofsson were all shut out during the four-game losing streak.
So Krueger broke things up during the loss at Winnipeg, replacing Reinhart with newly acquired Wayne Simmonds on the top line. It’s not clear how the top line will look against the Penguins.
“He’s just trying to get us going,” Reinhart said. “We’re as frustrated as anybody when we’re not producing the way we need to be. That’s (Krueger’s) call, and we kind of need to accept that and demand more of ourselves for sure.”
–Field Level Media