BUFFALO, N.Y. – From spectator to contributor, Sabres forward Drew Stafford quickly put his benching behind him with an impressive response.
Two days after he was banished to watch in the press box as a healthy scratch, Stafford rebounded by scoring twice, including once on a penalty shot, and added an assist to help Buffalo overcome a three-goal deficit in a 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night.
“It comes back to how you respond,” said Stafford, who sat out a 5-3 win at St. Louis on Sunday. “It’s being professional about it, not feeling sorry for yourself. It’s just going back to work. I was very fortunate enough to get some breaks tonight, and it just so happened to be the night after I got sat out. I’ll take it.”
So will the Sabres in a game they looked like they had no business being in after starter Ryan Miller was pulled 22 minutes in, when he allowed his third goal on 11 shots. Patrick Lalime took over and stopped all 27 shots he faced, and Jason Pominville capped the comeback by scoring a power-play goal with 9:05 left.
“We played well, we came back strong. Good character win,” said Lalime, who was particularly strong in making 18 saves in the second period. “It’s huge. We never let down.”
Paul Gaustad also scored for the Sabres, who hadn’t overcome a three-goal deficit since a 5-4 shootout win at Dallas last Jan. 15.
Jordan Staal, Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz scored for the Penguins, who squandered a three-goal lead for the first time since a 5-3 loss at Nashville last Jan. 8.
“A three-goal lead and we didn’t put it away. That’s what happens when you let teams hang around,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “We worked pretty hard and probably deserved better.”
The Penguins dropped to 1-3 in their past four games, and blew a chance to move into a tie with New Jersey atop the Eastern Conference standings. With 53 points, the Penguins are two back of New Jersey as they travel to face their Atlantic Division rival on Wednesday.
Pittsburgh appeared to take command 90 seconds into the second period when Kunitz, set up in the high slot by a smart pass from Crosby, blasted a 50-footer over Miller’s left shoulder. The goal chased Miller, in a week in which he is expected to be named to U.S. Olympic team.
Guerin didn’t sense a change in how the Penguins played. He instead chalked up the loss to how much better the Sabres were during the final 30 minutes.
“I don’t think it was necessarily a momentum change,” Guerin said. “They just started playing better.”
That boost came from Stafford, who started the rally by scoring on a penalty shot with 7:14 left in the second period. The Sabres were awarded the penalty shot following a scramble in front during which Penguins defenceman Jay McKee illegally smothered the puck while lying in the crease.
Driving in on net, Stafford made a head fake and then acknowledged he fanned on a shot that still fooled Marc-Andre Fleury and beat him through the legs.
“I just kind of sweeped at it and it went in,” said Stafford, who snapped a 15-game goal drought.
He scored against 2:09 later by converting his own rebound, and then made a nifty move to set up Gaustad’s goal to tie the game. Avoiding two defenders, including Sergei Gonchar’s attempt at a hip check, Stafford slipped a pass through the crease to Gaustad, who tapped it in.
“He was our best player tonight, which was good,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said of Stafford. “I think that’s the type of player he can be.”
Ruff, however, cautioned that he doesn’t want to make a habit of benching players to get the best out of them.
“That’s a hard lesson,” Ruff said. “But I think his answer is a quality response to a situation like that.”
NOTES: The Penguins, who kicked off a four-game road trip, had their bus become stuck in the snow three blocks from the hotel on Monday. Coaches and team officials had to get out to push. … With 462 career wins with the Sabres, coach Lindy Ruff moved to within three of passing Glen Sather (Edmonton) for fourth place on the NHL list of coaching wins with one team. … Penguins D Mark Eaton returned after missing three games with a lower body injury.