The Buffalo Sabres' longest winning streak in over two years has them charging into a playoff spot, but a key injury creates another obstacle.
The Pittsburgh Penguins' run at first place in the Eastern Conference has stalled.
The Sabres will need to withstand the absence of defenseman Christian Ehrhoff if they're going to regain sole possession of eighth place in the East when they host the Penguins on Friday night.
A 6-2 home victory over Pittsburgh on Feb. 19 started a 14-2-3 run for Buffalo (38-29-10), which has won five straight to move into a tie with Washington for the conference's final playoff spot.
The Sabres have a game in hand on the Capitals, and beat them 5-1 on Tuesday for their longest winning streak since a six-game run from Dec. 27, 2009-Jan. 8, 2010.
"It's a great thing because of the way we're playing," right wing Drew Stafford said. "We can control our fate now. We know every game from now on is just like it's been the past month or so - it's must-win."
That job will likely be made more difficult with Ehrhoff out indefinitely after hurting his left knee when he knocked knees with the Capitals' Troy Brouwer in the first period.
The defenseman's importance was evident earlier this season when he missed 11 games with a rib injury and Buffalo went 2-7-2.
"I think dealing with one injury is maybe better than what we had to deal with in the past," said coach Lindy Ruff, who at one point was missing as many as nine regulars. "We have to deal with it. We have to face a little adversity, and we need players to step up."
The Penguins were getting plenty of that during a 14-1-1 run that moved them within a point of the conference-leading New York Rangers. They've cooled significantly since, getting swept in a home-and-home set with the last-place New York Islanders following Thursday's 5-3 loss.
They've fallen five points back of the Rangers, who hold the tiebreaker. The Pens may be more concerned with Philadelphia, which is two points behind them in the race for the fourth seed and home ice in the opening round of the playoffs.
Pittsburgh's remaining five regular-season games are daunting.
"We're in Buffalo (Friday), and we have big games with Philly, New York, Boston and Philly again," coach Dan Bylsma said. "We're going to try to win every one of those games."
Evgeni Malkin continued his stellar season with his team-leading 47th goal Thursday, giving the superstar center nine goals and 10 assists in his last 10 games.
He reached 100 points for the first time since he had a career-high 113 in 2008-09.
Malkin has eight goals and 18 assists in 20 career meetings with the Sabres, including six points in two this season.
Teammate Sidney Crosby has 16 points during a 12-game scoring streak against Buffalo.
Crosby was held without a point and was a minus-3 in the two losses to the Islanders, and left Thursday's game briefly in the second period after he was struck in the nose by a puck.
Malkin and Crosby will likely have to deal with red-hot Ryan Miller, who has a 1.20 goals-against average and a shutout during the five-game winning streak.
Miller made 24 saves versus the Penguins on Feb. 19 after going 0-4-1 with a 4.67 GAA in his previous seven meetings.
- Pittsburgh Penguins
- Buffalo Sabres
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- Christian Ehrhoff