The Pittsburgh Penguins and host Buffalo Sabres — teams in disparate situations this season — played a close enough game Saturday that it could have gone either way. That might add some suspense Sunday, when the same teams meet again in Buffalo.
The Sabres, who sit 30 points behind the East-contending Penguins, trailed by two goals entering the third period Saturday. They pulled to within one and furiously pressured for the tying goal until the dying seconds before falling 3-2 — a loss that officially eliminated them from playoff contention after sitting last in the East most of the season.
It will be the 10th straight spring without a postseason appearance for Buffalo, but the Penguins don’t expect any quit despite having a 5-0-0 record in the season series.
“We expected them to push (late in the game Saturday), and they did,” Pittsburgh defenseman Cody Ceci said. “They have some good young players and have really come on strong lately.”
Buffalo’s current 5-3-2 surge after a dreadful first couple months of the season has been buoyed by several young players, as Rasmus Asplund, Casey Mittelstadt or Tage Thompson has scored in nine of the past 10 games.
“It’s very, very important for the young players to take ownership,” Sabres interim coach Don Granato said.
Injuries have helped the younger set get extra playing time and responsibility, but some key injuries are threatening to make things tougher for Buffalo.
Top center Jack Eichel has missed the past 21 games and is out for the season because of a neck injury. No. 1 goaltender Linus Ullmark got hurt last week and is listed as being out week to week, meaning he also could miss the remainder of the season. That’s bad timing with backup goalie Carter Hutton out the past 14 games, though Hutton might be nearing a return.
Most recently, the Sabres announced Saturday that veteran winger Kyle Okposo had season-ending surgery to repair a broken bone in his cheek that he sustained when he got hit with a puck on Thursday.
“Everybody looks up to him, so we definitely lose a big portion of that (leadership),” Granato said. “It’s bad that it happened and he’s missing the season, but certainly I’m grateful we’ve had him to this point because he’s done an awful lot for us.”
Pittsburgh also has been hit hard with injuries all season, and there is no one out right now whose return seems imminent.
“I think we’re just a resilient group,” Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry, who made 28 saves Saturday and helped his team withstand the Sabres’ furious flurry at the end, told NBC.
“You see how many guys we’ve had step into the lineup and get their first goals or their first points. It’s been like that the whole year, guys stepping in and doing what they can when they’re in the lineup and making sure we get wins.”
With back-to-back games, Pittsburgh — which is 4-0-1 in its past five games — is likely to go to backup goalie Casey DeSmith for the rematch Sunday.
Veteran goalie Dustin Tokarski, like Jarry, made some strong stops among his 38 Saturday, but Buffalo could go with Michael Houser.
–Field Level Media
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