BUFFALO, N.Y. – Ty Conklin’s early acrobatics gave Evgeni Malkin time to get the Pittsburgh Penguins’ offence in gear.
Conklin stopped 36 shots, including the first 25 he faced, while Malkin had a goal and assist in leading the slow-starting Penguins to a 4-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night.
“Certainly we had to weather a bit of a storm early, but I think we got our legs under us as the game went on,” said Conklin, who improved to 15-4-3 since taking over the starting job from injured Marc-Andre Fleury. “We capitalized on our breaks.”
There’s no other way to explain it, because the Penguins somehow found themselves ahead 2-0 midway through the second period despite being outshot 23-8.
“When your goalie’s giving you the performance like Ty gave us, it gives your team some confidence,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “He’s a big part of the reason why we had success.”
Petr Sykora, with a goal and assist, Jarkko Ruutu and Colby Armstrong also scored in a victory that moved the Penguins into a tie with idle New Jersey atop the Atlantic Division standings. For Malkin, he scored his 34th goal, one more than he had as a rookie last season, and extended his point streak to eight games (seven goals, 12 assists), the longest active in the NHL.
Thomas Vanek scored for Buffalo, which has lost two straight since enjoying an 8-0-2 run, and squandered a chance to jump ahead of Boston in the playoff race. The two teams are tied for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference.
It was an unlikely loss for the Sabres, who appeared ready to bounce back from a 5-1 loss at the New York Rangers a day earlier. Buffalo took control early, out-shooting the Penguins 11-0 through eight minutes and 17-6 through the first period.
The only thing missing was finish.
“Same story, a different game,” said Vanek. “We have to be pleased with the effort, but it’s still a loss.”
Conklin’s best stop came during the Sabres’ 2-on-1 break eight minutes in, when he moved across in time to snag Tim Connolly’s shot from the right circle.
“The first 15 minutes, we played picture perfect,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “We have to hold ourselves responsible for not putting them into the back of the net.”
The Penguins were the ones getting the breaks.
Ruutu had just stepped out of the penalty box when Ryan Malone hit him for a long pass, setting up a wide-open breakaway. Driving in on Ryan Miller, Ruutu faked forehand and neatly backhanded in a shot 7:28 into the frame.
Sykora scored two minutes later, also capitalizing on a fortunate bounce during an odd-man rush. Sabres defenceman Henrik Tallinder blocked Malkin’s initial shot, but the puck dribbled directly to Sykora, who swept it in the open left side.
Malkin then sealed the victory eight minutes into the third, poking the puck into an open net after Sykora’s centring pass hit a Sabres’ defender in front.
Who needs Sidney Crosby, if the Penguins are going to get bounces like that?
“Oh, come on, how can you even say that?” Sykora said, when asked about Crosby, the team leader who missed his 13th game since spraining his ankle. “I’m not even going to answer that because Sidney’s the best hockey player in the world. And he’s going to be the key guy for us in the playoffs.”
Notes: Crosby said he’s “progressing” after taking part in the team’s morning skate. Crosby, who took part in a full team practice on Saturday, is still expected to be out until at least the end of this month. … Pittsburgh improved to 7-4-2 since Crosby was hurt. … The Sabres, playing their eighth game in 13 days, completed their 16th of 20 sets of games played on consecutive days.