The Buffalo Sabres will welcome the Pittsburgh Penguins for back-to-back matinees Saturday and Sunday, and “welcome” is oddly an appropriate term.
The Sabres, last in the East Division after a mostly forgettable season that has included an 18-game losing streak, not only are 5-2-3 in their past 10 games, they are coming off a game Thursday when they knocked off the division-leading Washington Capitals 5-2.
Even though the Sabres are 0-4-0 against the Penguins this season, they have not faced each other in nearly a month, and Buffalo sees itself as a rapidly improving team.
The Penguins, sitting third in the East but hotly in contention for the division title, probably won’t seem so big and bad to Buffalo, which finally has some confidence.
“The guys were incredible,” winning goaltender Dustin Tokarski said after the victory over the Capitals. “It’s been quite the season for everybody, but it showed in the grit and the passion. This team has a bunch of gamers in it. I think there’s a bright future here.”
The Sabres’ youth movement shined through Thursday. Sam Reinhart, Victor Olofsson, Casey Mittelstadt, Anders Bjork and Tage Thompson scored — all are under 26 — and Dylan Cozens, 20, had two assists.
Buffalo interim coach Don Granato cautioned that one decent run or one dragon-slaying win isn’t the end of the story — “We want to keep improving and getting better,” he said — but he acknowledged that, “When you watch your players enjoy and immerse in the moment because they’re enjoying the moment, it’s hard not to have fun.”
“Sometimes you let the outcome and (concern) about the outcome interfere,” Granato said. “Our guys are not worried about the outcome. Just immerse in the moment and trust that it’s going to work out.”
Pittsburgh is concerned about the outcome of every game with less than a month left in the regular season and working toward a division title — or at least playoff position.
The Penguins have won eight of their past 11 games and are coming off a 2-1 shootout loss Thursday against another non-playoff team, Philadelphia.
Despite losing the extra point in the shootout, the Penguins, like the Sabres, are in pretty high spirits.
Part of that comes from a solid Pittsburgh debut Thursday for veteran forward Jeff Carter. He was the only addition the team made at the trade deadline, in a deal with Los Angeles for draft picks. No one was dealt away, leaving intact what seems to be good team chemistry.
Carter centered the second line, flanked by Jared McCann and Jason Zucker with Evgeni Malkin out because of injury, and got power-play and penalty-killing time.
“I think in the first period, I felt like I was kind of standing still thinking about systems and stuff like that and trying to figure out where I was supposed to go,” Carter said. “The second period, I think I just started to play hockey and use my speed. That’s when we started creating some chances as a line. From there on, we did a pretty good job of keeping things going north and attacking the net.
“It was something to build on for sure.”
Buffalo and Pittsburgh have partnered for Saturday to hold the NHL’s first joint Pride Game.
–Field Level Media