The Penguins opt to use backup goalie Casey DeSmith for the second game of the back-to-back and also have an exciting return. Kris Letang is back in the lineup just 12 days after suffering a stroke. (Oh and Ryan Poehling is also returning from a minor injury).
Visiting Buffalo has to adjust their lineup, but not in such a positive way. Jeff Skinner was removed from participation in tonight’s game (and the next two for Buffalo) due to a three-game suspension for his high-stick of Jake Guentzel last game. That shuffles Casey Middlestadt up to the high powered first line.
Perhaps energized and inspired by the return of Letang, the Pens actually start the game with some passion and play well at the beginning for the first time in quite a while. Pittsburgh earns the first power play of the game just 1:01 into it, and don’t score but look very sharp again. Then they follow that up by drawing a second early power play, and tallying a power play goal. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Rickard Rakell take turns firing pucks on Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and finally the netminder is in no position to stop the final shot from Rakell. That opens the scoring only 4:22 into the game.
Tricky Ricky— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 11, 2022
Rickard Rakell has 13 points (6G-7A) in 17 career games versus the Sabres. pic.twitter.com/nc8VFIzVlT
A few moments later, Crosby pops up and strikes. Jake Guentzel passes for Crosby behind the net and the Pens’ captain darts out from the back of the net on his backhand and gets enough power on a quick shot that trickles through Luukkonen. 2-0 Pens.
A Sidney Crosby backhand beauty pic.twitter.com/keT7kuQOsH— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 11, 2022
Buffalo gets their feet under them and tips the balance in the second half of the first period and gets a couple of power plays. The Sabres ping two posts, including Rasmus Dahlin really smashing the iron with a smart shot that narrowly avoided going into the net. DeSmith is living right so far.
Shots in the first were 12-9 Pens. Letang returns to lead the team with just over 8 minutes of ice-time in the first and literally looking like he never missed a beat. Unreal.
No scoring or penalties in the second period. Buffalo doing OK to just hang around and stay somewhat close for the third, but unable to get on the board in the middle frame. Shots are 10-10 in the second, and overall show a 22-19 advantage for Pittsburgh through 40 minutes.
Letang takes a holding penalty, but the Pens’ PK takes care of that.
With 9:00 even left, Buffalo finally gets on the board. Peyton Krebs gets a tip on an incoming point shot from Casey Fitzgerald and the game tightens up at 2-1.
DeSmith makes a marvelous save on Jack Quinn to preserve the Pittsburgh lead.
Buffalo is pushing to tie the game, but they give up a breakaway to Crosby when Guentzel flips the puck up for him. Crosby is off to the races and snaps in his second goal of the night and makes the score a commanding 3-1 lead with only 1:38 to play.
Bryan Rust’s personal battles with empty netters continues, Buffalo pulls the goalie but the long range shot just glances off the outside of the net. Crosby also gets two very far chances to get his hat trick but misses for icings.
In the dying seconds the Sabres mug Guentzel to not let him get in the clear for a goal. The refs don’t award him the goal due to not being on a clean enough breakaway and penalize Buffalo instead.
- The Pens improve to 2-4-1 this season on the second game of the back-to-back situations. This is an area where they will need improvement as the season goes on, Bob Grove pointed out the team has been .500 or better in these situation in 12 of the last 13 seasons.
- Five games in a row with a PPG, five games in a row with a win. Coincidence? Probably not entirely. Malkin has figured into getting a point on six of the last seven Pittsburgh power play goals. Great sign there that the big guns are turning things around.
- Jake Guentzel somewhat quietly now is up to a seven-game point streak (3G+8A).
- The Letang return less than two weeks after having a stroke was a remarkable accomplishment of medicine and the human spirit. Sounds cheesy, but also true. His medical history is worrisome, but he’s been cleared and his doctor said playing the sport of hockey is not putting him at further risk, so I guess that’s good enough for me. Hopefully he stays well and somehow this incident recedes into being something of a footnote again like from his first stroke.
- The Letang return saw the team stick with the Marcus Pettersson - Jeff Petry combo, which has been doing well, and paired Letang with his French-Canadian compatriot P.O. Joseph. That’s always been an intriguing pair, would be interesting to see them get the opportunity to play a few games together and see where it goes. Unfortunately, a byproduct of all that means the Brian Dumoulin - Jan Rutta pair is also still together and that will likely remain a major weakness for the team moving forward (even though, to be fair, they were passable in this game).
- Poehling returning was a smaller boost but an important one. That fourth line with Teddy Blueger and Josh Archibald is building something special in a minor way that fourth lines go. The team missed Poehling in his absence.
- Love the hustle that Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust have right now. It’s among the best and most fun things to watch those two get around the ice like hungry dogs chasing after a bone. Only it’s not a bone, it’s a puck.
- What a quality player that Rickard Rakell is, to close out the fun things to watch on the team now. Just a great skilled winger who knows what to do when he gets the puck in the offensive zone. Where would the Pens be without him this season? On second thought, let’s not even imagine.
- Great game for DeSmith, who despite not playing in two full weeks was able to come in and play a very sharp game in net. That’s such a difficult task for a backup and one that DeSmith does well. Very big value add to have a backup capable staying ready and stopping 37/38.
- With 1:51 left in the game, Jeff Petry got taken into the boards hard and appeared to jam his hand/wrist area. He left the game immediately, didn’t look very good.
- The Sidney Crosby show continues this season. Two more goals and an assist gave the captain a part in all three Penguin goals. He also took Tage Thompson’s lunch money all weekend long in the faceoff circle to the point where Buffalo was having Mittlestadt take the majority of the faceoffs tonight. Masterful performance that Crosby is putting on at age-35.
The Pens benefit from a bit of a break next week, but the schedule stays on them for a little longer with a third game in four days when the visiting and surprisingly electric Dallas Stars come to town on Monday.