Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury turns away shot by the Sabres' Zemgus Girgensons in the second period at Consol Energy Center.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It's no accident that the Penguins are 14 places and 41 points ahead of Buffalo in the Eastern Conference standings.
It also is no guarantee.
Sure, the Penguins' 3-0 victory Monday night against the Sabres at Consol Energy Center was completely logical -- even predictable -- but that doesn't mean they had the luxury of assuming that earning a couple of points was nothing more than a 60-minute formality.
For while the Penguins (37-14-2) have only been beaten 16 times in their first 53 games, they've been humbled by the bottom-feeding likes of Florida (twice) and Edmonton.
That means a team like the Sabres, who have an elite goaltender in Ryan Miller and a new-found willingness to compete since Ted Nolan took over as coach, was a viable threat if the Penguins allowed their focus to stray.
Which it clearly did in losses to the Panthers and the Dallas Stars in the past week.
"Everyone talked about them being the last-place team in the conference coming into tonight, but that doesn't really matter," Penguins center Brandon Sutter said. "There really aren't any easy games.
"We expected them to play hard, and lately they've been playing pretty well. They work hard. They might not have the best luck this year, but they're a hard-working team."
And so it was Monday, when the Sabres' problems stemmed from a lack of production, not perspiration.
Specifically, they were unable to get any of their 24 shots past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who recorded his fourth shutout of the season and 27th in the NHL.
He had to earn it with a handful of quality stops, most notably on close-range chances by Brian Flynn and Matt Moulson less than two minutes apart early in the third period.
Fleury, smiling, said "it got a little exciting in the third," and Moulson, while crediting Fleury with a strong stop, blamed himself for not getting the puck past him.
"You've really got to bear down when you get chances," he said.
"I didn't get the shot I really wanted but he made a good save."
Chris Kunitz, who celebrated the birth Sunday of his third child, a daughter named Aubrey, gave Fleury the only goal he needed at 5:44 of the second period by flipping a backhander past Miller for his 26th of the season.
"It's nice to help and contribute to your team when you've been focusing on your family," Kunitz said.
"It was nice to have the day off to have the experience with my wife having our third child, but you still have to come to work and try to do your job."
Kunitz got his opportunity to score only because, in the previous few seconds, Miller denied Sidney Crosby on a backhander from close range and Brian Gibbons -- auditioning again for the Pascal Dupuis role on the right side of that line -- put a shot off the left post.
More than 34 minutes remained when Kunitz scored, but precedent suggested the game was pretty much over, because the Penguins are 27-2-1 when opening the scoring, including an 18-0 mark at Consol Energy Center.
Still, every streak has a shelf life, so the Penguins didn't mind when defenseman Deryk Engelland -- again being deployed as a right winger on the fourth line -- threw a shot past Miller from the inner edge of the right circle at 12:05 of the second to put them up by two goals.
"I just tried to get it on net," Engelland said. "And it goes in."
His shot was the last thing to do so until 27.4 seconds remained in the game, and Tanner Glass closed out his second strong showing in a row by hitting an empty net.
Forty-eight hours earlier, he set a franchise record with 13 hits in Dallas.
Against the Sabres, he contributed the goal, an assist and six hits.
"Maybe his best two games of the year," coach Dan Bylsma said.
No one described the Penguins' work against Buffalo in such laudatory terms. It was more a step in the right direction than the completion of a journey to three periods of sound hockey.
"There's still a lot to clean up," Sutter said. "There are still things we can do better. It's all about the turnovers we're making. But it is a step in the right direction.
"Anytime you give the other team no goals, that's definitely a good win.
"It wasn't pretty, but it was a gritty win for our team. Something to build on, hopefully."
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