Crosby sits; offense thrives

Contributions from Kennedy, Taffe, call-ups push club back into first

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Ty Conklin says he doesn't fret about whether he or Marc-Andre Fleury will emerge as the Penguins' go-to goalie for the balance of the stretch drive and playoffs.

That he only worries about the things he can control.

Like stopping pucks.

That's something Conklin has done with impressive consistency for the past three months, including a 29-save effort in a 7-3 victory last night against Buffalo at Mellon Arena.

The victory hoisted the Penguins (40-24-7) into a tie with Montreal for first place in the Eastern Conference, and moved them one point ahead of second-place New Jersey in the Atlantic Division.

The Penguins won all four games against Buffalo this season, and Conklin, who finished 2006-07 as a Sabres player, was in goal for each of them. The Sabres beat him three times in the final period last night, but had only two goals in the other 11 periods (and one overtime) against him.

The Penguins played without center Sidney Crosby (ankle) and his future linemate, Marian Hossa (knee). Both are candidates to return when Philadelphia visits at 12:08 p.m. Sunday at Mellon Arena.

Playing without Crosby and Hossa obviously doesn't help a team's offense, but the Penguins got contributions from throughout their lineup last night.

Tyler Kennedy had a goal (his first in 17 games) and two assists, his most productive night in the NHL. Chris Minard scored his first goal in the league. Ryan Stone picked up his first NHL point.

"Anytime myself and [Kennedy] and other guys, [Stone] and Minard can chip in and score a goal, that's great," center Jeff Taffe said.

The Sabres, already missing several regular defensemen, lost another early in the second period, after Nathan Paetsch absorbed a high elbow from Penguins forward Georges Laraque.

Paetsch was motionless on the ice for several minutes before being helped to the Sabres' locker room. There was no immediate word on the nature or severity of his injury.

Laraque received a major penalty and game misconduct.

Kennedy put the Penguins in front to stay when he beat Sabres goalie Ryan Miller on a breakaway at 3:30 of the opening period. The goal was made possible by Pascal Dupuis, who took the puck from Buffalo defenseman Nolan Pratt in the Penguins' zone and fed it ahead to Kennedy.

Laraque's major gave Buffalo a chance to get back into the game, but the Penguins killed it masterfully -- they generated several more scoring chances than Buffalo did -- until Maxim Afinogenov of the Sabres was penalized for hooking with 68 seconds left in Laraque's penalty.

"That [penalty-kill] was definitely a turning point," coach Michel Therrien said.

Just nine seconds after Afinogenov went off, Taffe, with his back to the net, deflected a Darryl Sydor shot past Miller to put the Penguins up by two.

The Penguins put the game out of reach near the end of the period. Forty-four seconds after Conklin drew a tripping penalty on Sabres forward Thomas Vanek, defenseman Sergei Gonchar beat Miller with a wrist shot through traffic from the left point at 18:08.

"For two periods, we were almost perfect," Therrien said.

Petr Sykora picked up the winning goal on a power play 56 seconds into the final period, taking a Ryan Malone feed and scoring from the right side of the crease.

Jochen Hecht spoiled Conklin's shutout bid when he beat him with a backhander from the front lip of the crease at 3:02 -- Seneca Valley product Mike Weber picked up his first NHL point on that goal -- and Daniel Paille cut the Penguins' advantage to 4-2 with a short-handed goal at 5:11.

"The second goal gave them a little life," Therrien said.

But Evgeni Malkin short-circuited Buffalo's surge by tipping a Darryl Sydor shot out of the air and behind Miller at 8:56, and Minard converted a Jordan Staal feed 67 seconds later for his first NHL goal.

After Paille scored on a backhander at 10:49 to make it 6-3, Kris Letang closed out the scoring from the slot at 13:23. So the Penguins didn't just survive playing without some of their top offensive talents; they thrived.

"We've been battling through injuries for quite a while now," Conklin said. "It's not something new to this group."


Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .


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