Craig Anderson was furious.
With his glove hand covering the puck Friday night, Anderson couldn’t believe that Pittsburgh Penguins winger Jake Guentzel slashed at his left wrist late in the third period when the score was tied.
Jeff Skinner wasn’t going to let Guentzel skate away without a warning. Skinner confronted Guentzel along the boards, then the two exchanged words before the Penguins top-line forward delivered a slash to the Sabers winger.
Skinner’s reaction cost the Buffalo Sabers any chance of completing a comeback in front of 17,205 fans at KeyBank Center and earned the $9 million-per-season winger a hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.
A cross-check to Guentzel’s face led to Skinner receiving a five-minute match penalty that put the Penguins on a 4-on-3 power play in overtime and Jeff Carter’s goal 1:36 into the extra frame earned Pittsburgh a 4-3 win over the Sabres.
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“Emotions got the best of him,” lamented Sabers coach Don Granato.
The Sabers (12-13-2) saw their comeback halted by a retaliation penalty. They tied the score twice, capped by Kyle Okposo’s power-play goal as the extra attacker with 1:30 left in regulation. Skinner’s goal late in the second period, his 13th of the season, gave Buffalo a 2-1 lead, which it held until Pittsburgh scored twice in the third.
Craig Anderson was mostly stellar for the Sabers with his lone blemish being Brock McGinn’s shot from the right circle that went off the far post and in for a 3-2 Penguins lead with 3:30 left in the third period. Skinner’s decision to stick up for Anderson with 22 seconds remaining cost Buffalo a point, though.
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“You can’t really say much about the stripes, but obviously, you just hit the nail on the head,” Anderson said of Guentzel’s late slash. “It’s free rein as far as coming in. It wasn’t much, but it was clear as day I was freezing it for three seconds ahead of time. There’s no reason to do that. … Before you know it, we’re at the short end of the stick on that. It’s just the way she goes. That’s hockey. You’re not going to get all the calls by any means.
“We have to keep our composure and we have to use that as a learning curve, a learning tool for us. Like I said, it’s one of those things where staying in the moment and getting the two points is more important than getting frustrated.”
The Penguins (15-8-4) had only 20 shots on goal at even strength. They weren’t the sharper team in the first game of this home-and-home, back-to-back. Buffalo had opportunities to build on its 2-1 lead, which occurred because Skinner and Victor Olofsson scored 67 seconds apart late in the second period.
The Sabers had only three shots on goal in four power-play opportunities, only one of which resulted in a goal. Tristan Jarry was brilliant in goal for the Penguins, delivering 28 saves to earn the win.
This matchup than in the past. For years, the story was Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s dominance over the Sabres. This time, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was fielding questions from the Pittsburgh media Thursday about how his club planned to stop Buffalo’s superstar center, Tage Thompson, who tied the franchise record with five goals Wednesday night in Columbus.
The Penguins didn’t look prepared for anyone but Thompson, who finished with an assist and three shots on goal. The Sabers overwhelmed Pittsburgh by pressuring the oldest team in the NHL into sloppy mistakes. Buffalo had a 12-2 edge in shots on goal through the first 12 minutes of the first period and 8-1 through 11 minutes of the second period.
“We played fast, we played hard,” said Sabers defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. “We had really good gaps. We didn’t let them in our zone. We had our chances, so tomorrow I think we’re going to score on our chances.”
Pittsburgh showed little life until its power play took the ice late in the first period, and it took a 1-0 lead in the second on the man advantage when Guentzel had enough space to fire a shot from the slot past a screened Anderson at 15 :36.
The Sabers didn’t unravel. Granato and his coaching staff have developed what Buffalo has lacked in numerous meetings against the Penguins: multiple lines that can score. Olofsson’s goal was the latest example, as he collected a centering pass in the slot and scored his 12th goal of the season to make it 1-1 with a shot over Jarry’s blocker only 2:32 after Guentzel broke the scoreless tie.
Another Penguins blunder allowed the Sabers to take the lead. Thompson collected a pass from Casey Mittelstadt at the high slot, then, noticing defenseman Brian Dumoulin was cheating to the left side of Pittsburgh’s net, passed in front to Skinner, who stickhandled around Jarry and scored for a 2-1 lead with 45 seconds left in the second period.
A series of mistakes lost Buffalo the lead. Owen Power’s clearing attempt was blocked at the blue line by Crosby, then the Penguins cycled the puck until Rickard Rakell scored off a rebound to tie it, 2-2, only 2:53 into the third period. McGinn’s shot from the right circle made it 3-2, forcing the Sabers to scramble to earn a point.
Okposo replaced Anderson as the extra attacker, then the captain scored his second goal of the season on a pass from Jack Quinn. But a slash at the whistle shortly afterwards spoiled an encouraging performance by Buffalo, which has gone 5-2-2 since snapping an eight-game losing streak.
Guentzel slashed Skinner first. Cringing in pain, Skinner retaliated by whacking Guentzel on his right leg. The two shoved each other, then Skinner cross-checked Guentzel in the left arm before hitting him in the face.
Guentzel received a two-minute minor penalty for slashing, while Skinner got one of his own and a five-minute misconduct. The Sabers survived the final 22 seconds of regulation to earn a point.
Attempting to kill a fifth power play against a top team, Buffalo left the slot open for Carter to park in front of the net. Rakell sent a centering pass to the slot, where Carter used his left skate to kick the puck over to his stick before finishing the game-winning play.
The rematch is Saturday night in PPG Paints Arena. Tensions will be high. And it’s possible, if not likely, the Sabers will lose Skinner to a suspension.
“You’re in the game, stuff happens,” said Dahlin. “Just got unlucky with the stick there. We don’t blame him at all. He’s a competitive guy.”
Here are other observations from the game:
This was another outstanding game by the Sabres’ top line of Skinner, Thompson and Alex Tuch. Skinner and Thompson extended their point streaks to six games, while Tuch was a force with the puck for most of the night. He led the club with four shots on goal.
Thompson had his run of goal-scoring ends, but he’s up to 41 points in 27 games this season. Skinner, meanwhile, has 13 goals and 33 points. If Skinner is suspended, Granato will have to find a different left wing to play with the group.
This was an encouraging performance by Mittelstadt, who assisted on all three Sabers goals. Mittelstadt was active with and without the puck, playing a physical game the coaches need to see from the 24-year-old. He leveled Rakell with a big hit that led to a questionable interference penalty.
The Sabers need Mittelstadt to solve what’s ailing him at 5-on-5 this season. He had only two assists, a minus-8 rating and seven shots on goal in his previous eight games. It’s been a struggle. The same goes for Olofsson, who scored his second even-strength goal in his last 19 games with the well-timed drive to the net and finish to tie the score.
Tyson Jost made a perfect centering pass from the left point to spring Olofsson for the open look on Jarry.
“Plays with a lot of swagger,” Dahlin said of Mittelstadt. “He’s so skilled with protecting the puck and finding passing lanes. I’m really happy for him. He had a good game today. He’s just going to continue to get better.”
The Penguins must not have listened to their coaches. They must have known the Sabers would try to pressure the puck to create turnovers, yet there were several notable giveaways by Pittsburgh players that led to scoring chances or offensive-zone time for Buffalo.
The Sabers outshot the Penguins 12-2 through 12 minutes with Dahlin having two quality scoring chances from in tight, including one from the slot when he was left uncovered. Olofsson hit the post, JJ Peterka had a chance on a rush with Dahlin and a low shot by Tuch nearly Tristan Jarry.
It wasn’t until a power play late in the first that Pittsburgh started to show some signs of life. Two Sabers broke their stick during the penalty kill, Mattias Samuelsson and Zemgus Girgensons, but they managed to keep the puck out of the net because of a key block by Henri Jokiharju. Anderson also had to make a big save on Carter, who was left open in front.
Winger Rasmus Asplund was a healthy scratch for the seventh time in eight games. He’s typically one of their best defensive forwards and a reliable penalty-killer, but there isn’t a lineup spot available now.
Asplund, 25, is a pending restricted free agent. He’s someone the Sabers should be evaluating and developing to determine if he’s part of the solution beyond this season. Sitting in the press box won’t provide any clarity.
Defenseman Lawrence Pilut was a healthy scratch, while winger Vinnie Hinostroza (undisclosed), defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin (lower body) and goalie Eric Comrie (lower body) remain out due to injury.
The Sabers complete the back-to-back with the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Saturday at 7 pm Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is expected to start in goal for Buffalo.