Zbynek Michalek needed 59 games and 81 shots to score his first goal as a Penguin.
It only felt like it took James Neal that long to do the same.
The wait likely seemed worth it for both, however, because the ones they got Tuesday night were critical to the Penguins' 3-1 victory against Buffalo at Consol Energy Center.
Neal, playing in his seventh game since being acquired from Dallas, scored the Penguins' first goal early in the second period, and Michalek scored what proved to be the winner a couple of minutes later.
"Both those guys were pretty relieved," coach Dan Bylsma said.
The victory raised the Penguins' record to 39-21-8 and allowed them to remain two points behind first-place Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference. The Flyers still have two games in hand.
The Penguins have won consecutive games for the first time since running off five in a row Jan. 22-Feb. 4, and have swept the season series from Buffalo for just the second time.
The Penguins likely are sorry to see the season series end because their victory Tuesday night was their first in regulation since a 3-2 decision against the Sabres here Feb. 4. They went 3-6-4 between those games, with all three victories coming in overtime or a shootout.
Buffalo, meanwhile, had gone 6-0-1 on the road since its previous visit to Consol Energy Center, and failed to earn at least one point in a game for the first time since Feb. 20.
Left winger Chris Kunitz returned to the Penguins' lineup after missing 13 games with an unspecified injury. He played primarily with Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy, logged 15 minutes, 56 seconds of ice time, and was credited with three shots and a game-high five hits.
"That was a real solid game," Bylsma said. "I think he was a force, physicality-wise. ... A good game back for him."
Kunitz had a couple of chances to score -- Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller made a series of stops on him from in front of the net during a power play late in the second period -- but was unable to capitalize on them.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury did not have a quality scoring opportunity, but that didn't stop him from trying to tag along on the first-goal-as-a-Penguin theme.
With a little under a half-minute left in regulation, Fleury attempted to launch the puck the length of the ice and into the net Miller had vacated for an extra attacker.
Unfortunately for him, Fleury shot it directly into a Sabre standing in front of him, triggering a sequence that could have led to a Buffalo goal.
Fleury said he realized that his decision to try to score was ill-conceived "when I shot and it was right in the guy's chest, and then there was an open net [for the Sabres]. At that point, I thought I was in trouble."
Happily for Fleury, his primary duty is to prevent goals, not to produce them, and he has done that pretty effectively for the past four months or so. That includes turning aside 29 of 30 Sabres shots.
"He's made big saves when he needs to make them," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. "He's quietly put together -- I don't think quietly -- a nice season."
Fleury's night didn't start so well, though.
Rob Niedermayer got the Sabres' only goal -- and the only one by either team in the opening period -- when he moved down the right side, got around defenseman Paul Martin, drove to the net and jammed a shot past Fleury at 2:47.
It was the second goal in two games for Niedermayer, who hadn't managed any in the previous 53.
Neal's dry spell hadn't dragged on nearly as long as Niedermayer's -- heck, there are Hollywood marriages that don't last that long -- but it still was an enormous relief when he got a feed from Deryk Engelland and beat Miller from between the left circle and crease at 1:25 of the second.
"I got lucky and got a good bounce," Neal said.
Michalek, meanwhile, got a good screen from Alex Kovalev and Sabres defenseman Andrej Sekara, who were directly in front of Miller when Michalek's shot from the right point arrived at 4:42 of the second.
"I just tried to put the puck on net," Michalek said. "There was so much traffic the goalie had no idea where the puck was."
Miller didn't have much of a chance on the Penguins' final goal, either, as Mark Letestu deflected a Michalek shot out of the air and into the net at 13:06 of the third.
Letestu's goal was his 12th, but nobody seemed to mind that a repeat contributor got involved in the offense.
"It was nice to get some different guys on the score sheet," Bylsma said. "But a nice win from the group."
Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published March 9, 2011 5:00 AM