Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller makes save on Erik Christensen in the second period -- one of his 22 saves.
Defenseman Ryan Whitney was one of the first players on the ice for the Penguins' morning skate yesterday and one of the last players off.
"I just toughed it out," Whitney said afterward.
Still, he was held out of home game last night against Buffalo because of a groin injury.
"It's more of a precaution," coach Michel Therrien said. "If it would have been a playoff game, he probably would have been there, but we're a week away from the playoffs and we don't want to take any chances."
Whitney said he was disappointed because he was one of three players who had appeared in each of the team's first 79 games and wanted to play in all 82, but he understood the reasoning.
"We've already clinched [a playoff spot], and what if I reinjured it?" Whitney said. "It's just smarter.
"Hopefully, I'll be ready for [tomorrow at Ottawa]."
For Mark Eaton, September seems like eons ago. That's when it was training camp and the first-year Penguins defenseman was settling in nicely alongside Sergei Gonchar.
"It was a long time ago," Eaton said. "At the beginning of the year, I thought we played well together. I hope we can re-establish that."
Eaton, who missed large chunks of the season because of wrist and knee injuries, was reunited with Gonchar at the morning skate.
"He was supposed to play against the top players. That was part of our plan," Therrien said. "You always take a step back when you're coming off of a long injury. Now, a week from the playoffs, we need to know if his confidence is there and if he's capable of handling the speed and all that type of stuff. We want to give him that challenge."
If anything holds Eaton back, it won't be the injuries.
"Physically, I feel 100 percent, so I just need to go out there and keep improving every game and try to get ready for the playoffs," he said. "These three games will be a good precursor for that."
Therrien also shuffled three of his four forward lines at the morning skate.
Leading scorer Sidney Crosby skated between Evgeni Malkin and Colby Armstrong. Maxime Talbot centered for Gary Roberts and Michel Ouellet. And Erik Christensen was with wingers Jarkko Ruutu and Georges Laraque.
Rookie Jordan Staal remained with wingers Mark Recchi and Ryan Malone, a unit used in the previous game.
"You'll see different combinations, just to make sure when we start [in the playoffs] next week, we have all our answers to questions about line combinations, where we should put players," Therrien said.
The hunt continues
Gonchar, whose skate fell apart during a game at New Jersey March 14, still is trying to find a model that suits him before the end of the regular season.
"I'm getting there, getting close to figuring out which one I'm going to wear for the start of the playoffs," he said. "I still have another pair to go."
The NHL reported that sales of its licensed products on Shop.NHL.com for March were up 51 percent from March 2006, with the Penguins and Buffalo accounting for much of the increase.
Sales of Sabres merchandise increased 657 percent over March 2006. The Penguins were next with a 205 percent increase.
Crosby had the top-selling jersey. Buffalo's Ryan Miller (second), Daniel Briere (third), Maxim Afinogenov (fourth), Chris Drury (sixth), Jason Pominville (seventh) and Tomas Vanek (10th) also were in the top 10.
With Whitney missing the game last night , the only two Penguins who have played every game are the two oldest players among those who have been on the roster all season -- Recchi, 39, and Gonchar, who turns 33 Friday. ... Buffalo has a chance to finish with the most points in the league, but coach Lindy Ruff isn't watching that race. "We don't even talk about the Presidents' Trophy," Ruff said. "I spend a lot of time talking about home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference, and I think that's important." ... Therrien on the New Jersey Devils firing coach Claude Julien with a week left in the season: "It's a big surprise in the hockey world. I don't know all the insight and what might have happened, but everyone is surprised." ... The concrete facade outside Mellon Arena, the old St. Francis Hospital across the street and the block of Centre Avenue outside the arena have been decked out with Stanley Cup banners. ... Mario Lemieux Foundation T-shirts are available for sale at www.mariolemieux.org and at PenStation in Mellon Arena. Sales benefit cancer and neonatal research.
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.