After a string of emotional games, the Pittsburgh Penguins needed a respite from the March madness and intense hockey. Fortunately for them, the Buffalo Sabres obliged. The Penguins scored a trio of power-play goals and were generally too much for increasingly hapless Buffalo. Backup goaltender Casey DeSmith was perfect and the Penguins beat Buffalo 5-0 at KeyBank Arena, Thursday night.
Buffalo was without star center Jack Eichel. Consider him the lucky one.
The first period was not 20 minutes either team will remember. In deference to the Penguins superior skill and hot streak, Buffalo sacrificed offensive push to ensure their defensive zone was covered. The resulting speed and intensity at times resembled a Sunday afternoon game in the minor leagues when both teams are playing their third game in three days.
“Both teams were trying to get into the game. In the second period, we did a good job of creating some opportunity for ourselves and playing in the O-zone,” Brian Dumoulin said.
The Penguins upped the pace in the second period. Buffalo defenseman Casey Nelson, who played junior hockey in Johnstown before going to the University of Minnesota-Mankato, earned an interference penalty which put the Penguins power-play band back together.
After nearly 27 minutes of scoreless hockey, Phil Kessel (24) finished a cross-ice pass from Sidney Crosby at point blank range. Crosby and Kessel remained on the power play for the entire 1:45 without a line change.
The Penguins bookended the second period with a pair of goals in the final five minutes, too. Evgeni Malkin, who scored his 1000th career point with two assists Tuesday night, served up another apple. Malkin carried the puck the length of the ice, skated around the Buffalo zone which left Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin open at the top of the zone.
Dumoulin (3) snapped a top-shelf wrister from 37 feet. Yes, Brian Dumoulin beat goaltender Carter Hutton from 37 feet. Don’t act so surprised. You knew Dumoulin had a nasty wrist shot.
“Great pass by GM [sic], he found me coming down the slot. I know that guy is going to find me. (He) put it in my wheels, and I just tried to put it on the net,” Dumoulin said.
In the final few minutes of the second period, the Penguins power-play showed a killer instinct and salted the game. Patric Hornqvist was uncovered in front of the Buffalo net. Kessel’s shot caromed to Hornqvist (17) who neatly roofed a backhand. It was Hornqvist’s second goal since Jan. 6, though the rambunctious Swede had six assists in his previous eight games.
Crosby and Kessel assisted, which meant both had a multi-point game. Crosby has 92 points (33g, 59a) this season and took sole possession of fourth place in the NHL scoring race. Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov leads the league with a remarkable 111 points.
Center Nick Bjugstad gladly accepted a 2-on-1 gift, midway through the third period. Buffalo failed to play the puck in the offensive zone. Bjugstad hopped on the ice during a line change and had a clear path to the net. Bjugstad (11) snapped another top-shelf wrister over Hutton.
Bjugstad has six goals in 21 games with the Penguins. His uncle Scott had just three goals in 24 games in 1988-89. Bjugstad also assisted on the final Penguins goal–another power-play goal.
Jake Guentzel (36) deflected Zach Trotman’s point-shot in the final minutes. The Penguins power play was 3-for-4.
The Penguins have won six of their last eight games and three in a row. The New York Islanders beat Montreal in regulation, Thursday night. The Penguins now have a six-point lead on Montreal which is the first team out of the playoff seeds. Had Montreal won, the Penguins would have been in second place in the Metro Division.
Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith was sharp. He stopped all 26 shots. Neither team had more than 30 shots as the Penguins had only 28 shots on goal.
“He made some big saves at key times for us. That gave us a chance to keep the lead. Gave us a chance to get our legs going,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought it took us a little bit to get our legs.”