PREVIEW: Pittsburgh Penguins rediscovering offense with Sabres in town

By Field Level Media
Mar 24, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Buffalo Sabres goaltender Dustin Tokarski (31) makes a save against Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) during the second period at PPG Paints Arena. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins, hindered by several injuries, were looking for scoring depth. When the Buffalo Sabres came to town for two games in two nights, it appeared to be great timing for the hosts.

On Wednesday, in the first of those games, Pittsburgh got points from 12 players in a 5-2 win that sent the Sabres to a franchise-record 15th consecutive loss (0-13-2).

Three of the Penguins’ point-scorers were Sidney Crosby (a goal and an assist), Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust (one assist each), who make up the top line and had been overwhelmingly carrying the load offensively lately.

With forwards Evgeni Malkin, Jason Zucker, Brandon Tanev and Teddy Blueger out, depth scoring had all but dried up, and the Penguins had totaled seven goals in the four games (1-2-1) before Wednesday.

That led coach Mike Sullivan to give just a little thought to the almost unthinkable — breaking up the top line and all of its chemistry and skill in a desperate attempt to spread the scoring around and kick-start some other players.

“We like how Sid’s line has played to this point. There’s obviously some chemistry there, and so in that instance I’m reluctant to make a move. But having said that, it’s certainly not off the table,” Sullivan acknowledged before his team broke out of the top-line-heavy mode.

“It’s hard to win in the absence of contributions throughout your lineup,” Sullivan said after the game. “When we get it, you see the difference in the outcome.”

Zach Aston-Reese, who also had a goal and an assist Wednesday, said the Penguins produced more offense by paying attention to their 200-foot game.

“We’ve been talking about defense first, and that’s been leading to our offense,” he said.

Crosby has five points in the past three games and sits three points shy of 1,300 for his career.

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Pittsburgh could have another injury to deal with among its forwards. Winger Kasperi Kapanen left the Wednesday game after taking a puck off his left ankle. He was still being evaluated afterward, Sullivan said.

Buffalo also had a player leave the game. Forward Rasmus Asplund’s status was not clear. In addition, forward Tage Thompson missed the Wednesday game because of illness, prompting the team to dress seven defensemen.

The Sabres continue to have a laundry list of problems. They have not won since Feb. 23 and are 0-3-0 against Pittsburgh this season. They gave up 42 shots Wednesday. Their power play not only was 0-for-3 to extend their drought to 0-for-24, but they also yielded a short-handed goal.

Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen expressed the frustration that might be expected in Buffalo’s situation.

“I don’t think we play very smart,” he said. “We make really stupid mistakes that lead to way too many odd-man rushes every game.”

Sabres interim coach Don Granato wants the team to cut down on those odd-man rushes by being more aggressive.

“We can’t be conservative and get better,” he said. “We can’t be conservative and stay the same, but we need to get better.”

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If they had to scratch for some positives, the Sabres killed all five Penguins power plays, Rasmus Dahlin scored for the first time since Jan. 31, and they have five goals over their past two games — more than they scored in their previous four games combined.

Goaltender Dustin Tokarski made his first start since Dec. 21, 2015, and acquitted himself fairly well given the barrage he faced. He made 37 saves.

Tokarski was pressed into relief duty Monday when Carter Hutton got hurt. It’s not known how long Hutton and injured No. 1 goalie Linus Ullmark will be out. Both are sidelined due to lower-body ailments.

–Field Level Media