Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (14-8-4, 32 points, 3rd place Metropolitan Division) @ Buffalo Sabres (12-13-1, 25 points, 7th place Atlantic Division)
When: 7:00 p.m. Eastern
How to Watch: AT&T Sports Network Pittsburgh (ATTSN-PT) in the Western PA viewing area, MSG-B for the New Yorkers, Sling TV, ESPN+
Opponent Track: If you like goals, you’ve come to the right place. Buffalo is 3-1-1 in their last five games, including two wins in a row- but the real story has been all the goals in their games lately. In those last five games, the Sabres have scored a whopping 28 goals (5.6 per game), and have also given most of it back by surrendering 23 (4.6). Bad time to be a goalie, fun time if you like watching goals. Nothing illustrates that better than Tage Thompson’s eye-popping five goal game on Wednesday en route to a huge 9-4 win for Buffalo against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Pens Path Ahead: These same two teams meet up tomorrow night in Pittsburgh, and then the Pens play host to the Dallas Stars on Monday. After that, next week is pretty slack for the Pens, with only one game from December 13-17th (coming on the road in Florida next Thursday, 12/15).
Season Series: These teams already met on November 2nd in Buffalo, the Pens had an early third period 3-1 lead but would give up five straight goals and end up losing 6-3 to the Sabres. That night marked almost rock bottom for the Pens on their sixth straight loss. Tonight and tomorrow are the final two BUF/PIT games of the season.
Getting to know the Sabres
SB Nation counterpart: Die by the Blade
Jeff Skinner - Tage Thompson - Alex Tuch
JJ Peterka - Dylan Cozens - Jack Quinn
Victor Olofsson - Tyson Jost - Casey Mittelstadt
Zemgus Girgensons - Peyton Krebs - Kyle Okposo
Mattias Samuelsson / Rasmus Dahlin
Owen Power / Henri Jokiharju
Jacob Bryson / Lawrence Pilut
Goalies: Craig Anderson or Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
Scratches: Casey Fitzgerald, Vinnie Hinostroza, Rasmus Asplund
IR: Ben Bishop, Ilya Lyubushkin, Eric Comrie
—Buffalo’s young team is continuing to grow together, they have no defender older than 26 and only two forwards (Okposo and Skinner) above the age of 30. The core of this team from Power and Dahlin and Samuelsson on the blue line to Peterka and Cozens and Krebs and Quinn up front are all right in that age 20-22 range. In a few more years those player (plus Thompson and Tuch) could really be peaking if they hit with the right supporting pieces around.
—How about the ageless Craig Anderson? He keeps on tickin’ at the ripe old age of 41, by far the oldest goalie in the league (having Marc-Andre Fleury by 3.5 years) and is still doing really well, all things considered the defensive mess that is Buffalo. Anderson was drafted in 1999, just months after his current goalie partner was born. Pretty wild.
Rise of Tage
As recently as the truncated 2021 season, Tage Thompson just looked like a floundering player whose career was in neutral. He scored 8G+6A in 38 games with the Sabres. Now, by the end of 2022 he’s coming off a five goal game. That’s a remarkable rise for a player who ended up not putting it together until about age 24, but once he did has become one of the premiere high-end offensive players in the league.
In one of coach Don Granato’s most genius moves, he switched Thompson from a winger to a center for the 2021-22 season, and it’s been a career lift-off after that.
Thompson’s ability to develop elite finishing almost overnight and practically out of no where has been one of the most unexpected and quite frankly astounding bits of player growth that the NHL has seen in quite some time. As recently as 16 months ago, it would have been beyond dreaming to have the capability to imagine anything close that this could be a player about to embark on a 36-goal campaign in 2021-22 and then follow it up with 21G in 26 games to start 2022-23.
The goals from Wednesday present a good idea of the player he is. There’s the big shot from the left side, but Thompson can also use his backhand and has a lot of coordination in his hands and feet to skate in, use dekes and then lift the puck from in close into the net.
ALL 5 GOALS FOR TAGE THOMPSON pic.twitter.com/4Lc9DWzqkp— Pavel Barber (@HeyBarber) December 8, 2022
Head to head
The Sabres have been living life to the extreme this season. They pump in a ton of goals and shots and create almost endless chances. Except it does end, because they give up a ton of expected and actual goals against and don’t get great goaltending either. They’re great on the power play but weak on the PK.
That makes for some fun and entertaining hockey as a young team full of rising stars gets to spread their wings in the NHL, but to take the next step and get better as a team they need to learn and play with more balance and discipline away from the puck and improve a ton defensively and in net.
Puck management is always important, but it should be at a premium for the Penguins tonight when it comes to making the right decisions in the neutral zone, and also making to have as few turnovers in the middle of the ice as possible. Getting pucks in deep and staying in good defensive form is a must against Buffalo, because this is a team that is primed to counter-attack and thrilled with jumping up in the play for rush attempts. Buffalo’s top two lines are among the best at getting shots off the rush in the whole league so far this year, and their first line is the best. This is a team that will sell out to jump the play and look to generate offense off the rush.
And now for the Pens...
Potential Game Lines
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Rickard Rakell
Jason Zucker - Evgeni Malkin - Bryan Rust
Brock McGinn - Jeff Carter - Kasperi Kapanen
Danton Heinen - Teddy Blueger - Josh Archibald?
Marcus Pettersson / Jeff Petry
Brian Dumoulin / Jan Rutta
P.O. Joseph / Chad Ruhwedel
Goalies: Tristan Jarry (Casey DeSmith)
Scratches: Kris Letang (stroke), Ryan Poehling
—Archibald received a maintenance day and was off the ice yesterday. That’s usually Mike Sullivan-speak for player should be able to play the following day, but the Penguins also have nothing in reserves if Archibald is too banged up to go - Ryan Poehling practiced in a non-contact injury and likely isn’t ready to play.