Looking to move closer to their first division title in eight seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins host a Buffalo Sabres team that can clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs with a win Tuesday night.
The Sabres (50-21-7) lead the conference with 107 points, five ahead of Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey and Ottawa, the top team in the Northeast Division. Buffalo has four games left and one in hand on both clubs, which face each other Tuesday at Continental Airlines Arena.
“You don’t want to wait until the last game to clinch first place, you want to do it right away,” Sabres forward Derek Roy said.
While the Sabres are in control of the East, they are one point behind Western Conference-leading Detroit in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the team with the most points in the NHL.
Buffalo’s hopes of ending up with home-ice advantage throughout the postseason took a hit Saturday with a 4-3 loss at Montreal. Saku Koivu scored the winner 3:22 into the third period, coming off the bench and intercepting Ales Kotalik’s clearing attempt before driving the net and beating Ty Conklin with a shot into the top right corner.
“We had a period of time where I think five out of six rushes we turned it over at the blue line,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “I don’t think we were sitting back, I just thought we made some poor decisions when we hit the line.”
The Penguins (45-23-11) managed to secure a point Saturday after rallying from a three-goal deficit before losing 5-4 in overtime at Toronto.
“We were fortunate to get a point,” said Penguins left wing Gary Roberts, who scored his second goal in three games. “When you play in this atmosphere and the environment you got to be on your toes.”
Pittsburgh, which has clinched its first playoff spot since 2000-01, is one point behind the Devils in the Atlantic. The Pens have not finished atop a division since winning the Northeast in 1997-98.
Sidney Crosby, who had a goal Saturday to give him nine points in the last four games, has four goals and five assists in seven games against Buffalo. The league’s top scorer with 117 points, Crosby had a goal and two assists before scoring the winner in a shootout for a 5-4 victory over the Sabres in the last meeting March 13.
The Penguins have won the last two matchups with Buffalo after losing the season series opener 4-2 on Nov. 17. Following the home game against the Sabres, they visit the Senators on Thursday before wrapping up the regular season at home against the New York Rangers in a tough closing stretch.