Snapping 2-game slide will be tall order tonight

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The last time the Penguins headed north to Buffalo, they had won four games in a row and had the whole hockey world tuning in for -- or attending -- the Jan. 1 Winter Classic outdoor game at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Now, nearly seven weeks later, the Penguins are making a trip to upstate New York under another set of circumstances.

"It will be a little different setup, for sure," winger Colby Armstrong said after practice at Southpointe yesterday.

Rugged week

Today begins a stretch of five games in eight days for the Penguins.

Date

Opponent

Pts

.Pens vs.

Today

@Sabres

64

2-0

Tue.

Panthers

60

2-0

Thu.

@Canadiens

69

1-2

Sat.

Senators

73

1-1

Sun

Sharks

70

0-0-Currently holding a playoff spot

The game against the Sabres tonight will be back inside, at HSBC Arena, and the Penguins are not on a winning streak but have lost two games in a row as they try to stay ahead of most of the pack in the Eastern Conference.

"It was an exciting game to be a part of," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said of his team's 2-1 shootout win in the outdoor game, "but this is a challenge. This is the hottest team in the league right now. You can't ask for a better challenge for us to go there."

As Therrien spoke, Buffalo was preparing to take the ice at Madison Square Garden. While the Penguins flew to Buffalo, the Sabres cooled considerably, falling flat against the Rangers in a 5-1 matinee loss.

Before that game, Buffalo was on an 8-0-2 streak.

"There will be a little different excitement around the game," Armstrong said of the matchup. "Instead of a big outdoor game and big production, it's more [about the standings], especially since we lost the last couple games. We have to get that bite back and get going."

Before losing at home Wednesday to Boston, 2-1, and Thursday at Carolina, 4-2, the Penguins had not lost back-to-back games in regulation since Dec. 11-12.

They haven't lost as many as three in a row since a four-game losing streak in early November. That came during a 3-7-2 stretch that left them sitting three games under .500.

Going into last night, the Penguins, 11 games over .500, were tied with New Jersey for first place in the Atlantic Division and tied with Montreal for fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

Yet their 69 points had them just six above the eighth-place playoff cutoff.

If the Penguins let two losses turn into three or four, they could find themselves looking up at that line.

"After two losses, you don't want to let it slide," Penguins winger Jarkko Ruutu said. "That's something you have to pay attention to. You look at Detroit, they won a bunch of games in a row [eight] and now they've lost five in a row. You don't want to let it slip."

The Sabres also have strong incentive. Their recent unbeaten-in-regulation streak lifted them from 14th place to seventh in the Eastern Conference, and there's little doubt they will be keen on trying to stay above that playoff line.

"They're all big games at this time of the year," Therrien said. "This is when the real games start."

Buffalo is the first of four Eastern teams with a lot to play for that show up on the Penguins' schedule in the next week.

Florida, which visits Mellon Arena Tuesday, had climbed to within two points of the lead before yesterday in the Southeast Division, which might send only a team or two to the postseason.

Next up are a road game Thursday against Montreal and a home game Saturday against Ottawa.

Besides being tied with the Penguins yesterday, the Canadiens are pushing their Northeast Division foes, the Senators, whose grasp on the top spot in the East is not as firm as it was earlier this season.

The Penguins have precedent on their side tonight, considering how rarely they have stacked more than two losses in a row and how long it has been since they have.

"Looking at the season, you have to give a lot of credit to the players," Therrien said.

"They're committed about the way we play. They've got some success. We had two bad games, and we're going to bounce back. It happens to a lot of teams."

It doesn't happen often to the better teams, Armstrong said.

"I think I was in junior the first time I heard the saying, good teams don't lose two games in a row," Armstrong said.

"Good teams bounce back after a loss and, especially, after two in a row. We can't let this slide any further. We have to nip it in the bud."


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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