As the captain of one of the NHL’s top teams and on pace for his first 50-goal season, Sidney Crosby(notes) may find himself in contention for another Hart Trophy if he can keep his Pittsburgh Penguins rolling.
Two of the league’s top stars face each other for the first time this season Saturday night at HSBC Arena as Miller and the Sabres try to keep Crosby and the Penguins from a fifth consecutive victory.
The Penguins (24-10-1) have spent time without Evgeni Malkin(notes), Tyler Kennedy(notes), Chris Kunitz(notes) and five of their top six defensemen during the season’s first three months, but Crosby has kept the defending Stanley Cup champions near the top of the Eastern Conference.
His 39 goals as a rookie in 2005-06 remain a career high, but Crosby is well on pace to eclipse that. The ’06-’07 Hart winner has 10 goals in his last eight games - he missed a 2-1 overtime loss on Dec. 5 to Chicago with a sore groin - and Pittsburgh has won seven of those and four straight to stay even atop the Atlantic Division with New Jersey.
Crosby had a goal and two assists in a 6-1 rout of Philadelphia on Tuesday at Mellon Arena, then provided a power-play goal and the shootout winner in a 3-2 victory Thursday as the home-and-home series shifted across Pennsylvania.
“The guys in that room believe we can win,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “We can win in different ways if it’s a close game.”
Pittsburgh is 5-0 in shootouts largely because Crosby is 5-for-5. Prior to this season, he’d gone 12 of 38.
“The shootout starts with your goalie,” Crosby told the team’s official Web site. “As a shooter you’re a lot more confident when you’re shooting to win instead of playing catch up and there’s a little more pressure. That really starts with ‘Flower,’ and he provides that cushion to our shooters to really go for it and have that confidence to get the win.”
Fleury has been outstanding lately, going 9-1-1 with a 1.89 goals-against average since Nov. 21, but Miller has been consistent all season for Buffalo (21-10-2).
The likely starter for the United States in February’s Winter Olympics, Miller - who came into this season with a 2.66 GAA - has certainly made a strong case for the job by posting a league-best 1.89 GAA and allowing two goals or fewer in 23 of his 29 starts.
Miller made 40 stops in a 5-2 victory Friday against Toronto. Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has the same role for the U.S. Olympic team, which will be announced New Year’s Day.
“It’s nice when we get some goals, that’s for sure,” said Miller, whose 20 wins - equaled by Fleury and Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick(notes) - are second in the NHL behind the Devils’ Martin Brodeur(notes). “(At the same time), I’ve got to do my job and give my team a chance to win.”
Miller hasn’t had much success recently against the Penguins, going 2-3-1 with a 3.95 GAA in his last six starts. Malkin has tormented Miller in those games, recording three goals and 11 assists.
The teams split four meetings last season, each winning once on the road.
Crosby has seven goals and eight assists in his last 11 games against the Sabres. Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek(notes), whose goal Friday was his second in 10 games, scored three times last season versus Pittsburgh.