With a new coach behind the bench and their owner expected back on the ice, the Pittsburgh Penguins look to slow down red-hot Martin Biron and the Buffalo Sabres in the opener of a home-and-home series.
The Penguins’ eventful Thursday began with the team announcing the firing of Ed Olczyk, and the promotion of Michel Therrien from the club’s AHL team to replace him. Olczyk, 39, was 31-68-14 as Pittsburgh’s coach, recording the worst winning percentage in franchise history.
Only St. Louis has fewer victories, and general manager Craig Patrick decided to fire Olczyk after a string of dismally played losses in the last week.
Patrick said it became obvious during a 5-0 loss to Minnesota last Thursday that the players were tuning Olczyk out and no longer respected him, and the situation got only worse during losses to Detroit (3-1) on Monday and St. Louis (3-0) on Tuesday.
“The Minnesota loss was very disturbing—the team had shown its face and for whatever reason they weren’t listening,” Patrick said.
Therrien, 42, is the 19th coach in franchise history. His Wilkes-Barre/Scranton club reached the Calder Cup finals in 2003-04, defeating the top three teams in the AHL’s Eastern Conference before being swept by Milwaukee.
This season, Therrien, the Montreal Canadiens coach from 2001-03, led the Pens’ top farm team to a league-best 21-1-2 mark.
“We need to have a winning attitude, and do what winners do to win,” said Therrien, a disciplinarian who has a three-year contract. “There’s a price to pay, and it’s part of my duty to make sure those guys pay that price.”
Later Thursday, Mario Lemieux returned to practice, with Therrien already running the drills, and said he’s ready to go. The team owner has missed four games since doctors determined he has atrial fibrillation, a fluttering of the heart that can be treated with medication.
“I’m feeling good,” said Lemieux, a close friend of Olczyk’s who nevertheless endorsed the firing. “It’s something I have to deal with for the rest of my life, but the medication takes care of that.”
Even with Lemieux in the lineup, the Penguins have been one of the league’s biggest disappointments, having not won two in a row since Nov. 1-3. Getting Pittsburgh turned around in his first game may be a tall order for Therrien, whose club hosts the Sabres and the NHL’s hottest goaltender in Biron.
On Wednesday night, Biron heard his name chanted at HSBC Arena as he made 32 saves to win his 11th straight start, 4-3 over the Dallas Stars.
“That’s never happened, to be honest with you,” Biron said after guiding Buffalo to its fourth consecutive win. “When that happens, you work twice as hard because you want to keep it up and give them more to cheer at.”
Since a 6-1 loss Nov. 12 to Ottawa, Buffalo has won 12 of 14. The Sabres are off to their best start since winning 20 of their first 29 games in 1979-80.
Buffalo is 3-0-1 in its last four against Pittsburgh, limiting the Penguins to seven goals in that span.
The teams close out the home-and-home set Saturday at Buffalo.
STANDINGS (through Dec. 15): Sabres - 41 points, 2nd place, 5 PB, Northeast Division. Penguins - 22 points, 5th place, 22 PB, Atlantic Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Sabres - Ales Kotalik, 14 goals; Teppo Numminen, 20 assists; Tim Connolly, 23 points; Maxim Afinogenov, 34 PIM. Penguins - Crosby, 13 goals and 31 points; Crosby and Palffy, 18 assists; Brooks Orpik, 57 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS (through Dec. 15): Sabres - Power play: 21.1 percent (38 for 180), 4th in NHL. Penalty killing: 83.8 percent (135 for 161), 8th. Penguins - Power play: 14.9 percent (30 for 201), 23rd. Penalty killing: 79.9 percent (157 for 209), 25th.
SEASON SERIES: Sabres, 2-0.
LAST MEETING: Nov. 29; Sabres, 3-2. At Pittsburgh, Biron made 30 saves and Kotalik scored the go-ahead goal on a power play with 14:17 remaining.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Sabres - 10-5-0 on the road; Penguins - 4-8-3 at home.