After a perfect month of March, the Pittsburgh Penguins were greeted rudely by April, falling 4-1 at home to the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday to end their winning streak at 15 games.
The Penguins got their money’s worth in their first defeat since Feb. 28 at Carolina, which was also a 4-1 final. They were clearly off their game for much of the night, mismanaging the puck en route to allowing four goals in the opening 23:28. Pittsburgh (28-9-0, 56 points) had entered the night on a team-record shutout streak that stretched back nearly four games.
Starting goalie Tomas Vokoun didn’t provide much assistance, stopping only nine of 13 shots before Marc-Andre Fleury took over early in the second period. Fleury shut out the Sabres (14-17-6, 34 points) the rest of the way, but the Penguins took five consecutive penalties at one point, limiting their offensive output to 20 shots.
There were some positives, as Jarome Iginla netted his first goal as a Penguin in his second game after arriving via trade. The Penguins killed all five Buffalo power plays, as well.
Most notably from a historical perspective, Pittsburgh now owns two of three three longest winning streaks in all-time NHL action; only the 1982-83 Islanders, who also strung together 15, and the 1992-93 Penguins, who reached 17, occupy the stratosphere reached by this year’s team.
With 11 games left in the regular season, the Penguins’ thoughts can fully turn to maintaining their five-point lead for the top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. At 51 points, Northeast-leading Montreal is the nearest team to Pittsburgh in the standings, with Boston also within range at 50.
Their five-game homestand now complete, the Penguins will play seven of their final 11 contests on the road. That stretch begins Wednesday night in New York, as a home-and-home with the struggling Rangers (17-15-3, 37 points) gets going at 7:30 p.m. from Madison Square Garden.
Vokoun entered Tuesday’s game against Buffalo in search of his third straight shutout, but the Sabres ended that effort early with their own Mike Weber in the box for four minutes. Defenseman Matt Niskanen began a sloppy night for Pittsburgh in its own zone, as his nonchalant turnover directly led to Kevin Porter’s shorthanded goal 10 1/2 minutes into the first period.
Fortunately for the Penguins, they still had three minutes of power-play time left. They made the most of it at 13:27 when Chris Kunitz set up Iginla for his 526th career regular-season NHL goal, but first with a skating penguin on his chest. With Patrick Kaleta stick-checking him, Iginla bore down and jammed a one-timer under Ryan Miller from 10 feet away.
The tie score didn’t last five full minutes before Steve Ott blasted a slapper past Vokoun’s blocker from the top of the left circle. Jason Pominville earned the primary assist on the go-ahead goal by leading a speedy counterattack, something the Sabres did very well.
The Sabres, five points behind the Islanders for the final playoff spot in the East, continued their effective play early in the second frame with a quick pair of even-strength goals. Cody Hodgson took advantage of an overaggressive Vokoun when we wrapped his 13th goal of the season around the far post at 2:21, making it 3-1.
Porter ended Vokoun’s night 67 seconds later, albeit inadvertently. His attempted centering pass deflected off Pens blueliner Deryk Engelland’s skate and under the surprised Pittsburgh netminder for the final goal of the evening.
After firing 11 shots on Miller in the first, the Penguins managed just nine in the final two periods. Buffalo outshot Pittsburgh 12-3 in the middle stanza and 9-6 in the third, aided by five straight minor penalties assessed against the home team.
While James Neal, Malkin and Iginla played well in their second game as a forward unit, none of the other Penguins forwards distinguished themselves in the absence of Sidney Crosby, the league’s leading scorer. Crosby(broken jaw) joins puck-moving defensemen Paul Martin (broken wrist) and Kris Letang (broken toe) on Pittsburgh’s current injury list.