PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Good periods. Bad ones. It didn’t matter much to the Pittsburgh Penguins during their perfect 15-game run through March. In the end, they always found a way.
April might be a little tougher, particularly without star Sidney Crosby.
Outplayed on both ends of the ice for long stretches by rebuilding Buffalo, Pittsburgh fell 4-1 on Tuesday night to lose for the first time in more than a month.
“We just didn’t have much of an answer,” defenceman Matt Niskanen said. “Things weren’t going well from the start and we didn’t have a whole lot of a pushback or a whole lot of urgency.”
Pittsburgh was attempting to move within one of the NHL record of 17 consecutive wins set by the 1992-93 Penguins, but looked out of sync without their captain. The Sabres jumped on Pittsburgh early and never really let up to end a four-game winless streak.
Kevin Porter scored his first two goals in more than a year for the Sabres. Steve Ott and Cody Hodgson also beat Pittsburgh’s Tomas Vokoun as the Sabres took a quick three-goal lead and then clamped down on the league’s highest-scoring team.
Ryan Miller made 19 saves on the night he surpassed Dominik Hasek for the most games played by a Sabres goaltender. It wasn’t lost on Miller that his 492nd appearance could also be his final one in a Buffalo uniform. With the Sabres toiling near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, Miller understands he could be traded sometime before Wednesday afternoon’s 3 p.m. deadline.
“It’s one of those things where the players are definitely just chess pieces and the general managers are shuffling and moving them around and you don’t have a say so you just worry about hockey,” Miller said. “I thought it was great, we worried about hockey and we did a nice job.”
Pittsburgh has already made its big moves, acquiring three veterans—including six-time All-Star Jarome Iginla—last week to bolster a run at a Stanley Cup.
Playing the second game of his career for a team other than Calgary, Iginla scored his first goal with the Penguins but it wasn’t nearly enough.
“It’s a tough feeling tonight; you just want to keep that (streak) going,” Iginla said. “But at the same time it’s very impressive to see what this group accomplished.”
Even if that group is hurting at the moment. Crosby is out indefinitely with a broken jaw suffered in a win over the New York Islanders on Saturday. He underwent surgery and was released from the hospital on Tuesday, but the team has put no timetable on his return.
The Penguins are also missing defencemen Paul Martin and Kris Letang. Martin is out four to six weeks with an upper body injury while Letang is nursing a lower-body problem.
Pittsburgh vowed to press on without the league’s leading scorer, but hardly looked like the juggernaut that outscored opponents 52-26 while becoming the first NHL team to go undefeated in a calendar month. The Penguins tied the second-longest winning streak in league history by playing responsible hockey at both ends of the ice.
Led by Vokoun, Pittsburgh came in riding a club record three consecutive shutouts.
It didn’t take Buffalo long to ensure there wouldn’t be a fourth, getting to Vokoun twice in the first period to put Pittsburgh on its heels.
The Penguins had a chance to take the lead early after Mike Weber was hit with a 4-minute penalty for boarding and unsportsmanlike conduct.
Instead Porter scored the first goal allowed by the Penguins in 218:48 of game time following a bizarre sequence in which Iginla broke his stick trying a slap shot from the point, leading to a breakout by the Sabres. Iginla, scrambling back without his stick, managed to take the puck away from a Buffalo player using only his skate and direct it to Niskanen.
Rather than move the puck to the boards and out of danger, Niskanen attempted a backhand clearing pass up the middle only to send it directly to Porter, who had little trouble flipping a wrist shot by Vokoun for Porter’s first goal since March 12, 2012.
Iginla provided a spark later in the power play when he streaked down the slot and took a feed from Evgeni Malkin to beat Miller for a power play goal that tied it at 1.
The score briefly brought the crowd to life, but Buffalo kept right on attacking. Ott took a drop pass from Jason Pominville and fired a slap shot by Vokoun with less than 2 minutes to go in the first to put Buffalo back in front.
The Penguins had rallied from a deficit four times during their 15-game run. They couldn’t make it five. Hodgson undressed Vokoun for a pretty wraparound goal 2:21 into the second period and Porter made it 4-1 just over a minute later when his shot from the top of the left circle deflected off Pittsburgh defenceman Deryk Engelland’s skate and between Vokoun’s legs.
Marc-Andre Fleury replaced Vokoun and was sharp, stopping all 16 shots he faced in his first game since sustaining a minor upper body injury against Montreal last week. Miller was even better, silencing the NHL’s hottest team with relative ease.
“It always stinks when it comes to an end,” Fleury said. “But I thought the guys did a great job throughout the streak, coming back from games and holding leads and I thought we played some very good hockey.”
NOTES: Penguins D Brooks Orpik played in his 622nd career game, breaking Ron Stackhouse’s club mark for games by a defenceman … The Penguins begin a home-and-home set with the New York Rangers on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden … The Sabres host Ottawa on Friday.