BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ty Conklin says that there's nothing personal about it, and really seems to mean it.
Sure, he finished last season with Buffalo and, no, the Sabres didn't try to re-sign him during the offseason, but that's not why he elevates his game to its most rarefied level when he faces Buffalo.
It just looks that way.
Still, after turning aside 36 of 37 Sabres shots in the Penguins' 4-1 victory at HSBC Arena last night, Conklin allowed that "it's a little bit special" to defeat them because "everybody wants to play well against their former team."
Gee, lucky for the Sabres that he doesn't really have it in for them.
As it is, Conklin has started three games against Buffalo this season and won them all. What's more, he has stopped 98 of the 100 shots the Sabres have thrown at him, which translates to a save percentage that's far easier to calculate than it is to comprehend.
The victory raised the Penguins' record to 33-21-5 and lifted them into a tie with New Jersey for first place in the Atlantic Division. The Devils have an identical record, although they own an edge on the Penguins in the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Conklin is 15-4-3 since making his first start for the Penguins nearly two months ago and, with Marc-Andre Fleury, who hasn't played since Dec. 6 because of a high ankle sprain, about to be added to the Penguins' goaltending mix, management will have to decide what to do with Conklin and or Dany Sabourin.
Coach Michel Therrien said Fleury could return from the Penguins' minor-league team in Wilkes-Barre as early as tomorrow, although he might stay with the Baby Penguins for one more start after playing in Binghamton tonight. In any case, Therrien said, no decision will be made until Fleury is back.
Conklin, for his part, said he hasn't considered what general manager Ray Shero and his staff will opt to do, although it's almost unthinkable that Conklin, who came up from Wilkes-Barre on emergency recall when Fleury was hurt, would go back to the American Hockey League.
That means the front office would have to either risk sending Sabourin through waivers to play in the AHL or keep three goalies on the NHL roster, an arrangement that usually satisfies almost no one.
"That's not my decision to make," Conklin said.
"It's not [Sabourin's] decision to make, and it's not [Fleury's] decision to make. We'll leave that up to somebody else."
That seemed to be how Conklin's teammates felt about the early part of the game last night as Buffalo ran up a 17-2 edge in shots at one point late in the first period.
"We poured a lot into the first period," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "And got nothing to show for it."
That was a direct reflection on Conklin, whose play ran the gamut from brilliant to breathtaking during those 20 minutes.
"We had a bad start," left winger Jarkko Ruutu said. "[Conklin] was great. He kept us in the game."
Ruutu, who Shero said a few days ago "might be the best zero goal-scorer in the league," lost any claim to that distinction by beating Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller on a breakaway to put the Penguins up, 1-0, at 7:28 of the second period.
Ruutu had just finished serving a hooking minor when he pulled in a long lead pass from Ryan Malone in the neutral zone and broke down the slot before sticking a backhander behind Miller for his first goal in 60 games.
"Obviously, it's been in the back of my mind," Ruutu said. "At least, I can think now and not have to worry about not having a goal."
Petr Sykora got the winner during a power play at 9:28 by swatting in an Evgeni Malkin rebound.
Buffalo made it 2-1 on a Thomas Vanek goal at 14:45 after Patrick Kaleta of the Sabres goaded Colby Armstrong into dropping his gloves -- and picking up an unsportsmanlike-conduct minor -- at 14:18, but the Penguins put the game away in the third.
Malkin poked in a loose puck from the front lip of the crease at 8:13 and Armstrong hit an empty net with 72 seconds left in regulation for his first goal in 17 games.
"I have to thank bad ice for that," Armstrong said.
"I think I was missing the net, and it took a nice hop for me."
The Sabres got no such breaks. Their luck turned bad when Conklin was named the starter and went downhill from there. Not that they necessarily should feel like an old teammate was picking on them.
"This is the time of year," Conklin said, "when you have to want to beat everybody."
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published February 18, 2008 5:00 AM