A win for the Buffalo Sabres tonight clinched the 11 spot in the eastern conference. Fortunately for the Pittsburgh Penguins, only eight teams make the playoffs from each conference. If you were to make a short list of the teams that have given the Pens problems this season, the Sabres might be at the top of it. On April 2, the Sabres ended the Pens’ 15 game winning streak. Tonight they ended a seven game win streak for the Pens.
Surprisingly, a few of the absentee Penguins made their returns tonight. Kris Letang returned from his illness. Marc-Andre Fleury returned after Tomas Vokoun had made the previous two starts. And most unexpected was the return of Evgeni Malkin. Dan Bylsma also said before the game that Paul Martin may be the next to come back in the regular season. That will be a welcome sight especially since Brooks Orpik went down early in this game with a lower body injury.
Thomas Vanek scored the first goal of the game to give the Sabres the lead. He also scored the last goal on an empty net to ice the game for the Sabres. That was after Steve Ott scored with 2:34 remaining in the third period to break a 2-2 tie off of a rebound that he batted out of the air and past Fleury. Jochen Hecht was the other goal scorer for the Sabres.
Losing certainly can not be blamed on the lack of testing Ryan Miller. The Pens have been Miller’s biggest bugaboo over the years but tonight was a different story. The Sabre goaltender stopped 40 shots en route to the 4-2 victory. Chris Kunitz netted his 22nd goal of the season in the first period to tie the game at one. Jarome Iginla scored for the fourth straight game on the power play to tie the game again at two in the third period. Other than those two blemishes, Miller was a brick wall. His confidence skyrockets when Sidney Crosby isn’t destroying his life.
The loss is not a particularly good one for the Penguins to take but it is also extremely insignificant. The most significant thing is the injury to Orpik. The defense and penalty killing unit particularly is shaky as it is. Losing him hurts. Which is shocking for me to say considering the fact that the only reason he hasn’t worn out his welcome here is because of one shift he had a handful of years ago.
Two more games left until the playoffs start. It’s a possibility that Martin will be back for one of them. Slowly but surely the Penguins are getting healthy. Playing the Pens as is would be an uphill climb for whatever team finds their way into the eight spot. Facing a healthy Pens team is like adding a backpack full of lead to that uphill climb.