Poor play brings out the best in Buffalo's struggling lineup

Sabres 6, Penguins 2

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It was, a few of the Penguins had agreed, a bit perplexing.

Hard to figure how Buffalo could find itself anchored near the bottom of the Eastern Conference as the stretch drive approached.

The Sabres simply had too much talent -- to say nothing of speed and creativity and an accomplished coach -- to suffer through that kind of season.

But there has been an occasional bright spot in Buffalo's mostly miserable winter, such as a 6-0 victory against Boston a few weeks ago.

And a 6-2 victory against the Penguins (33-21-5) Sunday at the First Niagara Center.

For at least one game, the Sabres looked like the team they are supposed to be. And the Penguins looked like the team they probably are in some of coach Dan Bylsma's worst nightmares.

They were sluggish and sloppy from the earliest minutes, and had the focus one might expect of a group that spent the previous evening at Mardi Gras.

The Sabres playing to something resembling their potential at the same time the Penguins were turning in one of their more lackluster showings of the season yielded a predictable outcome.

"They have all the skill," Penguins left winger Chris Kunitz said. "They have the guys. I can't speak for what they do, but [Sunday] they looked pretty good ... we made them look pretty good."

The Penguins had looked pretty good themselves 24 hours earlier in a 6-4 victory in Philadelphia, and what they accomplished against the Flyers clearly had an effect on how they played Sunday.

And not in a positive way.

"We came out so good [Saturday] and had such a good game," winger James Neal said. "We just came out [Sunday] really flat. ... There was obviously a letdown."

And it didn't take long to show up. On the ice, and the scoreboard.

The Sabres went in front to stay just 52 seconds into the game, when Jason Pominville punched a rebound past goalie Brent Johnson from the right side of the crease.

It was the first of three goals allowed by Johnson, who faced 12 shots before being replaced by Marc-Andre Fleury at 2:52 of the second period.

Johnson hardly was the only Penguin to endure a miserable afternoon, but for him, Sunday's performance was just the latest installment in what has been a terribly difficult season.

He has a 3-7-2 record, 3.17 goals-against average and a save percentage of .882.

And, not surprisingly, Johnson also has a public expression of confidence from his coach, although even Bylsma acknowledged that the Penguins have to get better play out of him.

"I'm confident this guy can play and win hockey games," Bylsma said. "He hasn't played particularly well and [it] hasn't been a season like last season, where he won seven games at the beginning of the season for us.

"Certainly, the starts the last couple [of games], where he's gotten behind in the game, is not the best recipe for winning hockey games. He is going to be playing again, and he's going to have to win us some games. He's going to have to play better and be stronger in that area."

He delivered a similar message about -- and, perhaps, to -- defenseman Paul Martin, who finished the day with a plus-minus rating of minus-4 -- tying teammate Kris Letang for the worst in the game -- to drop his total for the season to minus-11.

And while plus-minus ratings hardly are a foolproof method of measuring performance, Martin's seems a reasonable reflection of the season he is having.

"I thought Paul played one of his better games with the puck and created a lot [Sunday]," Bylsma said. "Unfortunately, at the end of it, he is minus-3 [sic] and it's not a good thing.

"Paul's game, in some [aspects] this season, hasn't been where we need it to be, and he knows that. He's trying to get it back because he's a guy we're counting on to defend for us and play big minutes for us against other teams' top lines."

The Sabres were up, 3-0, when Fleury replaced Johnson, and Deryk Engelland got the Penguins on the board just 47 seconds later.

Fleury subsequently denied Patrick Kaleta on a penalty shot, but after Jordan Staal got the Penguins within one at 5:05 of the third, Drew Stafford, Derek Roy and Tyler Ennis beat Fleury to put the game out of reach.

And if the Penguins are lucky, it was out of their memories almost as quickly.

"It is," Fleury said, "best to forget about that one."

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published February 20, 2012 5:00 AM


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