Penguins: 3-0 advantage squandered

Sabres goalie Lalime 'pitches' shutout in relief, previously scratched Stafford paces rally in 2nd



BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Buffalo's world-class goalie didn't beat the Penguins last night.

Heck, Ryan Miller didn't last 22 minutes before they ran him out of the game.

And the Sabres' big-time goal-scorer didn't give them any problems, either.

The only reference of consequence on the score sheet to Thomas Vanek is his minus-1 plus-minus rating.

No, the Penguins' 4-3 loss to the Sabres at HSBC Arena can be traced directly to a backup goaltender and a forward who wasn't even allowed to dress for the previous game.

And, of course, the 19 players on the visiting club -- give goalie Brent Johnson a pass, because he was nothing more than an innocent bystander on this night -- shouldn't be overlooked, either.

They're the ones who couldn't make a three-goal lead stand up or manufacture a fourth goal once the Sabres began to register a pulse as the middle of the game approached.


Today

Game: Penguins at New Jersey Devils.

When: 7:08 p.m.

TV: FSN Pittsburgh.

The skinny: The Canadian Olympic team will be announced this afternoon. For updates, visit www.post- gazette.com.


So while many of the Penguins professed to be satisfied with much of what they did -- "For the most part, we worked pretty hard, and I thought we deserved better," center Sidney Crosby said -- it's hard to imagine how the result could have been palatable to them.

Especially when it was the first time this season the Penguins (26-13-1) have lost after building a three-goal advantage.

"Obviously, we're not used to it," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "And I hope we're never going to get used to it."

Several players insisted that, aside from the final score, this game had little in common with their loss to Toronto at Mellon Arena 48 hours earlier. A fair point, but that's more an indictment of their performance against the Maple Leafs than an endorsement of their work during much of the final two periods last night.

Sorry, but when a team with the Penguins' personnel -- and a proven ability to close out opponents who are trying to play from behind -- demonstrates the killer instinct of a heavily sedated lamb, it's tough to put too much emphasis on the positives they claimed to take out of this game.

Mind you, less than two minutes into the second period, the only uncertainty about this game figured to be whether the Penguins' margin of victory would reach double figures.

Jordan Staal gave them a 1-0 lead at 4:08 of the opening period by swatting in a Tyler Kennedy rebound, and Bill Guerin made it 2-0 at 18:31, when his harmless-looking wrist shot from along the right-wing boards eluded Miller.

Then, just 88 seconds into the middle period, Chris Kunitz took a drop pass from Crosby and beat Miller with a slap shot from above the left circle to make it 3-0.

That goal prompted Sabres coach Lindy Ruff to replace Miller with ex-Penguins goalie Patrick Lalime. Miller stopped just 8 of 11 shots in 21 minutes, 28 seconds of work.

Lalime turned in a dramatic upgrade on those numbers -- he stopped all 27 shots he faced -- but at least one Penguins player believed that nothing he did should have had a significant impact.

"We were up, 3-0," Gonchar said. "We shouldn't have been worried about Lalime. If we had finished the game the way we started it, I don't think that guy would have been a big factor.

"He made some good saves and he's a good goalie. But, at the same time, I don't think it's a lot about him. It's more about us."

And at least a little about Drew Stafford, a healthy scratch for Buffalo's 5-3 victory Sunday in St. Louis after failing to score in 15 consecutive games. He scored on a penalty shot at 12:46 of the second, then made it 3-2 by flipping in his own rebound at 14:55.

While those goals revived the Sabres, the Penguins still could have snuffed Buffalo's momentum after the second intermission. They never came close to doing it.

"The place where it probably got away from us was the first 10 minutes of the third," coach Dan Bylsma said. "Up until that point, I thought we'd played pretty well, played our game."

Not for a lot of the third, when Paul Gaustad pulled the Sabres even at 7:28, and Jason Pominville got the winning goal on a power play at 10:55. Pominville's goal gave Buffalo two points, and the Penguins a lot to think about as they prepare to face New Jersey tonight at the Prudential Center.

"I thought we played a fairly decent game," defenseman Jay McKee said. "But we can be better. We need to be better."


Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com . First Published December 30, 2009 5:00 AM


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