The Sabres clinched the Northeast Division and wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in 27 years, slowing Pittsburgh’s rush to the postseason with a 4-1 victory on Tuesday night.
In a possible playoff preview, Thomas Vanek registered his 40th goal and Jason Pominville scored slightly more than a minute later in the third period to put the Sabres up by three in only their fourth victory in Pittsburgh in 10 years. They had been 3-12-5-1 there since the 1996-97 season.
Clearly, the Sabres weren’t awed by the huge sign celebrating Penguins stars such as Sidney Crosby that covers nearly one side of a building near the arena.
“We took care of the puck, we didn’t make a lot of mistakes and we didn’t give them a lot of opportunities,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “We took a lot of pride in playing in our own end.”
And of winning the conference, too, though there weren’t any champagne bottles or celebratory T-shirts on display.
The Sabres made certain their final three games, all against non-playoff teams, will effectively mean nothing as Dmitri Kalinin and Derek Roy scored in Buffalo’s 51st victory.
“It’s a nice accomplishment, but it’s not the ultimate goal,” all-star Daniel Briere said. “There’s a lot more to be done.
“We don’t get too carried away with that. It’s nice to have home-ice advantage at the start of playoffs, but that’s where it stops.”
Buffalo last won a conference title, the Prince of Wales, in the 1979-’80 season and hadn’t won its division in 10 years.
“We set lofty goals and to secure home ice is a heck of an accomplishment,” Ruff said.
The Sabres remained one point behind Detroit (110-109) for the Presidents’ Trophy, which goes to the team with the most points during the season. The Red Wings beat Columbus 3-0, but have one fewer game remaining than Buffalo.
By losing, the Penguins fell three points behind Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey – a 2-1 shootout winner over Ottawa – for the division lead and second place in the conference. Both teams have two games remaining.
The Penguins also dropped two points behind Ottawa (103 to 101), for fourth place in the conference and home ice in a first-round playoff matchup. Pittsburgh plays at Ottawa on Thursday and at home against the Rangers on Saturday.
The Penguins’ first letdown in weeks – they were 12-3-2 last month, the most March victories in club history – came at an inopportune time. The Sabres held NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby (117 points) without a point and seemed to take advantage of any mistake the Penguins made.
“They came into our building and played better than us and that hasn’t happened very often,” Mark Recchi said. “It was a good wakeup call for us because we’ve got two big games coming up, and we’ve got to play a lot better, be more intense and focused.”
After Kalinin and Recchi scored in the first period, Recchi’s 23rd goal but his first in 21 games, Roy’s 18th goal early in the second proved the biggest of the game. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stuck out his right pad to stop Drew Stafford’s shot but Roy skated hard to the lower right circle and put the rebound past Fleury.
Early in the third, the Sabres had just killed off Briere’s delay of game penalty when Vanek also scored on a rebound, sweeping the puck around Fleury after the goalie stopped Stafford’s shot from the slot. Vanek became the first Sabres player to score 40 goals in a season since Miroslav Satan also had 40 in 1998-’99, when Buffalo lost to Dallas in the Stanley Cup final.
Pominville made it 4-1 only 66 seconds later after Jochen Hecht put a long pass on his stick in the right circle following a Pittsburgh turnover in the neutral zone.
“We had opportunities on the power play and we didn’t take advantage of them,” Crosby said after the Penguins went 0-for-8 on the power play. “I think if we score on one of those power plays, it’s a whole different game.”
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller made 22 saves in his 38th victory, matching Don Edwards’ team record set in 1977-’78.
“It was a good example of playing smart hockey, and that’s what wins in playoffs – being patient, waiting for your opportunity and being solid,” Miller said.
Notes: Crosby had nine points in his previous four games. … Penguins D Ryan Whitney (groin) missed a game for the first time this season. … The teams split the four-game season series. … Neither team scored on the power play. Buffalo was 0-for-6.