GAMEDAY 72: Sluggish in Buffalo

In the eight games the Penguins have played since taking another year off of Dan Bylsma’s NHL coaching career by snatching away a 3-0 Sabres win and turning it into a 4-3 Penguins win, the Penguins ran into a bunch of injuries that would normally foretell at least a waning in the standings if not a more serious collapse.  It is therefore a testament to the depth, cohesion, and skill of the Penguins’ franchise and coaching staff that they actually played better after dispatching the Sabres.  Nevertheless, the Penguins are likely to play tonight’s game in Buffalo without defenseman Ron Hainsey and center Evgeni Malkin and the challenge will continue, as it has been since the beginning of February, to make sure Mike Sullivan gets as much rest for his active players as possible.

Having a weekend at home against some lesser opponents gave Sullivan an opportunity to ramp up the ice time for Nick Bonino who had a rough outing against the Flyers (12:13 ice time, zero points, 1/7 on face-offs) but looked much better against the Devils and Panthers (1 goal, 19:30+ ice time, 17/32 on face-offs).  Bonino’s regressed in general from last season despite the increase in time:

…but Bonino’s a much more efficient second-half player (0.4298 points/game pre-ASG vs. 0.5411 points/game post-ASG) and his continued improvement will be crucial as long as he’s being relied upon as the second-line center.  It is reassuring to see that his numbers are approaching where he was in his only season in Vancouver (especially that shooting percentage); let’s hope he continues to improve because the Penguins will naturally need contributions from everyone but in particular from the Penguins’ typical third-line center.

A win tonight will clinch the Penguins’ eleventh-straight postseason berth, which ties the franchise’s previous longest stretch from 1991-2001.  We may someday get to the point where we can debate the two periods in franchise history, but considering the status of the team’s personnel health neither the team nor we can take anything for granted.  As impressively as the Penguins have performed since February 1 in the face of mounting injuries, 13 of the 22 games played in that span have been against non-playoff opponents…not exactly the stiffest of competition.

Eight of the final eleven opponents on the Penguins’ slate are either in the playoff race or are fighting for their playoff lives; they will not make things easy for the Penguins, and despite having a very unlikely chance to make the playoffs, Dan Bylsma’s Sabres will certainly want to achieve a moral victory in making things hard for Pittsburgh.

Since there are only 11 games left in the season and we have pretty much emptied the tank on Gomez Gallery awards, I wanted to start a trial that could possibly be a thing, or not. It is “Favorite memory against opponent” and todays winner is one that everyone will always associate the words Buffalo and Pens with:

Just watching this takes me back to my bedroom, listening to this game on my radio with headphones in because it was a school night and I was supposed to be in bed. Will never forget watching the highlight the next morning and reenacting the goal and celebration time and time again with my brother. What a goal.

The only way for Buffalo to have any success in this game is by successfully shutting down the SSG line, which as Jesse Marshall illustrates here, isn’t an easy task. The Penguins haven’t made any progress on the injury front to the best of my knowledge, except that Bryan Rust has been cleared for contact but he is still nowhere near game ready. The only player the Pens have been silent on is Ron Hainsey, who may have died and that’s why there isn’t an update. Other than that the team will continue to plug in holes with Sestito and Pouliot, mainly because the AHL team is in the thick of a playoff race and the franchise would rather Sestito and Pouliot get hurt instead of Warsofsky, the Baby Pens leading defender and literally any other forward.

After the Fleury start Sunday I would expect Murray but you have to wonder if the Fleury shutout influences the decision any, either way the Penguins have two quality goaltenders that should be able to out duel whichever reject the Sabres choose.

The Penguins are in a tight race in the division, and due to their incredible success at home you have to think securing a playoff spot that grants them a home-ice advantage is on their priority list. Of course staying healthy the rest of the way through is the biggest priority, but if the Pens want any chance at 2nd or 1st in the Metro they have to get the 2 points in games against these bottom feeders. If the SSG line stays hot, then this game should be the one that punches the Penguins playoff ticket, and regardless of expectations that is never something to take for granted.