If the Sabres are going to make a late push for the postseason, their play will need to vastly improve immediately, starting Tuesday against the Penguins.
Buffalo’s attack depends on forward Thomas Vanek, who set the world on fire at the beginning of the season with 15 points (6G-9A) in seven January games, but has cooled off considerably as of late while battling injuries. He scored just six points (4G-2A) in March.
He was forced to leave during the Sabres’ 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning March 26, a week after getting hurt in Buffalo’s 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
Vanek impressed in a Feb. 17 matchup with the Pens, scoring two points (1G-1A), but Buffalo lost a 4-3 decision. While he has been sidelined, the Sabres have struggled to replace his point total, leading to a 0-2-2 record in their last four games, capped by a 2-0 shutout against the Boston Bruins Sunday.
Coming off of a shutout might be an ominous sign for the Sabres as they enter CONSOL Energy Center. They will face a team that has earned three consecutive shutouts for the first time in franchise history and has cut its goals against average to just 2.33, good for fourth best in the NHL.
Buffalo has received some reinforcement from center Cody Hodgson, who was earned 11 points (4G-7A) in the last month. If the Sabres are to stay within striking distance of the Penguins Tuesday, they will most likely need Hodgson to rack up a few points since their defense has not been up to snuff this season.
Buffalo’s defense is ranked 25th in the NHL with a 3.00 GAA. Defensemen Christian Ehrhoff has done a solid job protecting the back line, holding a plus-10 rating, but is the only Sabres blueliner with a plus rating. Even with Sidney Crosby out indefinitely, Buffalo will need Andrej Sekera, Tyler Myers and its other blueliners to put on a top-notch performance in order to slow the league’s most explosive offensive unit.
It also doesn’t help the Sabres that goalie Ryan Miller has struggled in net, at least relative to his past success, with a 2.89 GAA and .911 save percentage, both of which are not in the top 30 among NHL goalies.
The Penguins are one of the few teams to have Miller’s number in his career, as he holds a 5-11-3 record, 3.44 GAA and .881 save percentage against Pittsburgh. He picked up the loss in the teams’ lone matchup, allowing four goals.
PENGUINS (28-8-0) vs. SABRES (13-17-6)
WHEN: April 2, 2013 – 7:30 p.m. | WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center
Steve Ott – Cody Hodgson – Jason Pominville
Drew Stafford – Tyler Ennis – Ville Leino
Nathan Gerbe – Kevin Porter – Marcus Foligno
John Scott – Jochen Hecht – Patrick Kaleta
Christian Ehrhoff – Tyler Myers
Robyn Regehr – Andrej Sekera
Mark Pysyk – Mike Weber
SABRES: CODY HODGSON
With Vanek nursing an injury, Hodgson is Buffalo’s most reliable offensive source and will need to prove it on Tuesday in order for the Sabres to have a shot of breaking the Penguins’ 15-game winning streak. Hodgson netted a goal against the Pens in their first meeting, but the 23-year-old forward has limited experience against Pittsburgh, earning just one point in three games when the teams meet. In his first full season with the Sabres, Hodgson has put up 28 points (12G-16A).
PENGUINS: JAROME IGINLA
If Saturday was the way Jarome Iginla plays without having a single practice with the Penguins, then the Sabres should prepare to face another outstanding performance from the Pens’ newest star forward. Iginla fit in very well with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal in Pittsburgh’s 2-0 win over the New York Islanders, tallying three shots and two hits in 17:30 of ice time. The 35-year-old winger has potted six goals in 18 career games against the Sabres.
Penguins center Sidney Crosby is recovering from surgery to repair his broken jaw. Paul Martin had surgery on his hand to fix a broken bone. Kris Letang is skating on his own, but there is not timeline for a return to practice with the team.
F Sidney Crosby, broken jaw
D Kris Letang, lower body
D Paul Martin, broken bone in hand
F Ville Leino, upper body
D Alexander Sulzer, lower body
F Corey Trop, knee
F Thomas Vanek, upper body
Author: Wes Crosby