Perhaps the Pittsburgh Penguins outplayed a couple of opponents during their recent six-game losing streak but still earned a loss. On Thursday night, the statistics were quite clear, the Buffalo Sabres outplayed the Penguins but it was the Penguins who lit the lamp and Penguins goalie Matt Murray who made dazzling saves. Sidney Crosby put the dagger through Buffalo’s heart with a hard backhand goal midway through the third period and the Penguins beat Buffalo 4-2 at Key Bank Arena.
The first period was wide open.
The teams played Niagara shinny for the first five minutes with end to end action and no whistles, the scores came in a tight bunch. The Penguins began to pressure Buffalo with a good forecheck beginning with the fourth line which lasted through an entire cycle of Penguins lines. Nick Bjugstad, who missed the last 46 games due to a sports hernia surgery, figured prominently on the first goal.
About eight minutes into the game, Bjugstad crashed the net but tangled with Buffalo defenseman Curtis Lazar, and wiped out Buffalo goalie Jonas Johansson. Patric Hornqvist (16) put the loose puck into the net. The play withstood a review and earned the Penguins a power play because Buffalo challenged the goal.
However, Buffalo scored a shorthanded goal on the resulting power play. Penguins winger Bryan Rust’s quick drop pass at the offensive blue line became Jack McCabe’s breakaway. McCabe deked Murray to the backhand and tied the game, just one minute after the Penguins goal.
Just a few minutes after the goal swap, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson (2) leaned into a slap shot from the top of the zone and it beat Johansson.
The second period was the period of Penguins goalie Matt Murray. The Penguins structure and play broke down and Buffalo snapped off a handful of great scoring chances. Murray made sparkling saves, including a pad save on Jimmy Vesey on a two-on-none.
Murray even stopped Buffalo forward Johan Larsson. Literally. Larsson backed over Murray later in the second period. Larsson was injured and left the game. Murray simply changed sticks.
On the resulting power play, Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist bolted from the corner to the net. Hornqvist (17) scored when his shot hit a defenseman’s skate and Johan’s stick.
It was the Penguins first shot of the second period., and it took more than 13 minutes. The Penguins had just three shots in the second period and yielded nine scoring chances, according to NaturalStatTrick.com
Buffalo made it a close game early in the third period. After a failed clear and breakout by Jack Johnson, Buffalo transitioned against the Penguins. Marcus Johansson (9) beat Murray with a short-side wrister from the slot.
Johansson allowed a soft goal early in the third period and that ended the Buffalo onslaught. The Penguins tightened up the defensive zone and winger Jason Zucker sprung Crosby and Conor Sheary on a two-on-one rush. Johansson cheated towards the pass, but Crosby (15) instead backhanded past the goalie on the short side.
“Backhand shots are hard for goaltenders because it’s hard for them to pick up where it’s going. It’s hard for them to pick up the release,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think Sid is one of the best at it. There aren’t a lot of guys who can play on their backhands like he does in today’s game. That’s a throwback skill.”
The Penguins opened the shooting gallery later in the third period. Sheary and Patrick Marleau hit posts. Jason Zucker also rang the iron in the first period.
Johansson stopped 28 of 32 before Buffalo pulled him for the extra attacker. Murray was spectacular. He stopped 28 of 30 for his 19th win this season. Murray also moved his save percentage back to .900.
The Pittsburgh Penguins now trail Philadelphia by three points for second place and the Washington Capitals by three points for first place. The Penguins host Washington on Saturday.