The 36-year-old Carter, acquired from Los Angeles at the trade deadline, beat Michael Houser three times in the game's first 25 minutes for his first hat trick since March 28, 2018. He added his fourth with a pretty backhand — the 398th of his career — early in the third period that put the Sabres away.
The four-goal performance was the first by a Penguin since Chris Kunitz did it in a win over Washington on Feb. 3, 2013.
Tristan Jarry overcame a sloppy start to finish with 19 saves as Pittsburgh moved two points ahead of Washington for the top spot in the East. The Capitals, however, have three games remaining. The Penguins have just one, their regular-season finale on Saturday against the Sabres.
Drake Caggulia scored twice for Buffalo, but Houser's homecoming ended with a loss to the team he rooted for while growing up in the northern Pittsburgh suburbs.
The 28-year-old spent nearly a decade before bouncing around the minors before finally reaching the NHL earlier this week. He dazzled in a pair of wins over the New York Islanders to earn a third consecutive start. Playing in front of more than 20 friends and family, Houser stopped 26 shots but couldn't keep the NHL's highest-scoring team under wraps.
Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner also scored for Buffalo, but the Sabres — who began the season hoping to end a nine-year playoff drought — assured themselves of finishing with the worst record in the 30-team NHL for the fourth time since 2013-14.
The Penguins by contrast have the longest active playoff streak (15 years) in major North American professional sports. Yet just reaching the postseason isn't enough, one of the reasons they brought in Carter last month.
The two-time Stanley Cup champion adds depth and a veteran presence in the bottom six. Perhaps just as importantly, his “shoot first” mentality is something the Penguins — who can sometimes frustrate coach Mike Sullivan by searching for the pretty play instead of the prudent — desperately need.
After Caggiula surprised Jarry with a shot to the short side 2:45 in, Carter took over. He slipped a wrist shot by Houser 9:57 into the first. He needed less than two minutes to put the Penguins in front, taking a nice drop pass from Jason Zucker for a power-play goal. He completed a natural hat trick with a rebound by Houser 4:36 into the second.
The Sabres kept pace for a little while. Caggulia's second of the game tied it at 3 just 37 seconds after Zucker's third but the Penguins simply kept coming.
Pittsburgh then reeled off four straight — including Carter's backhand flip — to take control and inch closer to at least having home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
Pittsburgh's 21 home victories this season are tied with Tampa Bay for tops in the league.
Buffalo and Pittsburgh wrap up their respective regular seasons with their eighth and final meeting. The Penguins are 6-1 against the Sabres.
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