Penguins notebook: Niskanen, Vitale return to lineup
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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A few days ago, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma spoke optimistically about the possibility of having Matt Niskanen and/or Joe Vitale back in the lineup as early as Sunday.
So much for that plan.
Not because either of those guys has suffered a setback, but because Niskanen actually made it back into uniform for a game Friday night against the Buffalo Sabres at the First Niagara Center.
"His practice the day we left Pittsburgh [Wednesday] was significantly better and pain-free in a lot of areas," Bylsma said. "That's why he came on the trip.
"Getting through [Thursday's] practice, he tolerated a lot of physical activity, a lot of confrontations on the ice, and that made him available for [the Buffalo game]."
Niskanen had four goals and 17 assists in 72 games before facing the Sabres.
Vitale returned after missing seven games because of an unspecified injury.
The previous time the Penguins visited Western New York, the Sabres' season was on life-support, and the prospects for recovery looked to be somewhere between nominal and nil.
Buffalo had slipped to 14th place in the Eastern Conference on merit, and a season that began with great expectations seemed doomed to end in a fireball of despair and defeats.
"We hit rock-bottom there, obviously," Buffalo defenseman Jordan Leopold, a former Penguins player, said Friday. "We went through a real tough time there where we lost 12 in a row on the road and things weren't going too well. We weren't getting bounces, a lot of injuries, we weren't competing as hard as we needed to."
But when the Penguins returned to face the Sabres Friday night, they were met by a team that had staked a claim to eighth place in the East and was on a 7-0-2 roll.
And while the Sabres still haven't locked up a spot in the playoffs, their 5-1 victory Tuesday in Washington put their destiny back in their hands.
"A month and a half later, here we sit with a good opportunity, where we can control where we're going to be at the end of the year," Leopold said. "We dug ourselves out of a big hole, and we need to continue playing the way we have."
The Penguins took on the Sabres after being flogged in a home-and-home series by the New York Islanders, in which goalie Marc-Andre Fleury allowed 10 goals.
But while he easily could have justified taking a day to rest and refocus, Fleury decided to participate in an optional game-day skate with a half-dozen teammates.
"They needed a goalie in there, I guess," Fleury said, smiling. "A target, you know? Guys were skating, so I just came out for a little skate."
He backed up Brent Johnson Friday night, but will be back in goal Sunday. It will be the first time he has tried to bounce back after losing consecutive games in regulation since early January.
"I'm kind of looking forward to it, actually," Fleury said. "To get back in there and try to change it up. It's been two tough games."
Buffalo defenseman Mike Weber, a Seneca Valley product, rejoined the lineup Friday night, filling in for injured veteran Christian Ehrhoff.
Weber had been a healthy scratch for the previous four games and has endured a difficult season. He did not dress for the first 10 games or 15 of the first 16, and his appearance against the Penguins was just his 48th in 2011-12.
Despite the limited work, his plus-minus rating of minus-19 was the team's worst.
"I'm obviously not happy, starting off this season again as a healthy scratch and having to work my way into the lineup," Weber said after a game-day skate.
"The bounces haven't really gone my way, statistically, but I think that every day, I come in with a positive mindset to get better and to continue to build and be a more mature, well-rounded NHL player."
First Published March 31, 2012 12:00 am