With an opportunity to jump into the fourth seed in the East playing a Buffalo club that had lost four in a row, Pittsburgh came up with a weak effort, and instead dropped to the fifth spot in the conference.
Derek Roy scored two goals and added an assist, Jason Pominville scored a goal and posted three points, and goaltender Ryan Miller made 24 saves to lead the Buffalo Sabres to a 6-2 trampling of the Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday afternoon at the First Niagara Center. The names of both Roy and Miller have made the recent rounds in the rumor mill as the Sabres, who snapped a four-game losing streak (0-3-1), appear to be ready to become sellers as the NHL trade deadline approaches on Feb. 27.
Pittsburgh fell to just 4-4-1 in February.
Buffalo opened the scoring in the game's first minute. Roy attempted to dump the puck behind the net along the left wing wall, but it bounced into the slot to Tyler Myers. The big defenseman flipped a pass toward Pominville, who was stationed to the left of Pittsburgh starter Brent Johnson, and the Sabres' captain was able to chip a shot past the goaltender for his 23rd goal of the season just 52 seconds after the opening faceoff for a 1-0 Buffalo lead.
The home team added to the margin shortly thereafter, with Roy and Pominville once again being involved. Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff sent a pass from his own blueline up the left wing boards, where Pominville tipped the puck to Roy in full flight. As Pens' defender Brooks Orpik stood Roy up at the left circle, the center sent a backhander past a startled Johnson for his 12th goal of the year and a 2-0 Sabres' lead after the first period.
As they did in the first, the Sabres got off to a good start in the middle frame. With Buffalo still pressuring the Penguins' net after the expiration of a Pascal Dupuis high-sticking minor, Nathan Gerbe carried the puck around the net and attempted a shot that Johnson stopped. Paul Gaustad was there to pick up the garbage and promptly deposited the rebound top shelf over the fallen netminder to increase the Buffalo lead to 3-0 just 2:52 into the second.
Having stopped just nine of the 12 shots he faced, Pens head coach Dan Bylsma had seen enough and sent out the hook for Johnson, replacing him with their number one goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury.
The move seemed to spark Pittsburgh, as the Penguins were finally able to answer back less than a minute later. The NHL's leading scorer sent a pass from the right wing boards to Deryk Engelland straight away at the blue line. The low-scoring blueliner one-timed a shot past Miller for just his third goal of the season to get the Penguins on the board and cut the deficit to 3-1.
Fleury would deny Patrick Kaleta with a glove save on a penalty shot attempt midway through the period to keep Pittsburgh within two goals at the second intermission.
The Penguins took advantage of an early power-play opportunity in the third, when winger James Neal found Jordan Staal with separation from defenseman Jordan Leopold in the low slot. Staal's backhander went beneath Leopold's sliding attempt to block the shot and trickled through Miller's pads, just crossing the goal line before coming to rest for the center's 19th goal of the year to bring the Pens to within 3-2 at the 5:05 mark.
But that would be it for Pittsburgh.
Just over a minute later Buffalo entered the Pens' zone and Drew Stafford's redirection of a Thomas Vanek pass went just wide, but Stafford was able to gather his rebound behind the Pittsburgh cage, The winger skated around the net and whipped a bad angel shot that banked off of a sprawling Fleury's arm and bounced into the net for Stafford's 10th of the season to give the Sabres some breathing room at 4-2.
A crucial sequence in the outcome of the contest would play out when Leopold went to the penalty box for holding at 6:39. As the Buffalo minor was winding down, Ehrhoff sent a slap pass from deep in his own end up the left wing boards onto the stick of Pominville at the Pittsburgh line. Pominville carried the puck, pulled up at the half boards, then sent a pass to the front of the net that Roy was able to deflect through Fleury's five-hole for a shorthanded tally, his second of the afternoon and 13th of the year with 11:28 remaining in regulation and a 5-2 Sabres' lead.
The assist was Ehrhoff's third of the afternoon.
Buffalo put the game out of reach late in the third, with Tyler Ennis tapping his own rebound past Fleury for his sixth goal of the season shortly after a Neal charging minor had expired to give the home club a 6-2 lead with just 3:17 left in the third to close out the scoring.
Fleury finished the game with the exact same numbers as Johnson, stopping just nine of the 12 shots he faced over the last 37:08 of the contest.
Miller, who has suffered through a down year, evened his record at 17-17-4. He snapped a three-game losing skid (0-2-1) and won for the first time since Feb. 10.
Earlier in the day, the Penguins re-signed Neal to a 6-year, $30 million contract extension.
While the Sabres sit in the 14th spot in the Eastern Conference and trail the eighth-place Toronto Maple Leafs by seven points, Pittsburgh missed out on a glorious chance to pass the idle Philadelphia Flyers for the fourth seed. With the loss in regulation, the Penguins fell to sixth in the East when the New Jersey Devils dumped the Montreal Canadiens later in the afternoon, moving NJ past both the Pens and the Flyers into fourth.