Mario Lemieux kept the streak intact, but no one seemed too upset about it afterward. In the end, what mattered most was not that Lemieux got his point, but that the Buffalo Sabres made theirs. And made it quite emphatically.
With a five-game home losing streak hovering over them, the Sabres rediscovered the brand of hockey that had vaulted them to the top of the NHL earlier in the season. They showed that determined and resolute team defense will overcome the skills of even the most gifted player.
Dominating throughout, they pounded the Pittsburgh Penguins, 7-2, Sunday in the Aud and moved back within three points of Boston in the Adams Division.
Super Mario looked more like Stupor Mario, as the Sabres forwards -- Scott Arniel, Christian Ruuttu and Dave Snuggerud, in particular -- kept his offensive forays to a minimum. Meanwhile, the Sabres were having their way with a pathetic Pittsburgh defense, equaling their season's high with seven goals.
"I think we thrive on our defensive play," said Snuggerud, who earned the third star without getting a point. "When we do that, we play well and it takes a lot of pressure off the other key players -- the Andreychuks, Folignos and Turgeons. It makes them play a lot more relaxed."
During the home losing streak, the Sabres had come out a little too relaxed. But Sunday, they scored just 2:24 into the game on Doug Bodger's power-play goal.
Then, late in the period, defenseman Mike Ramsey made the play of the game. After being faked to the ice by Gord Dineen, Ramsey poke-checked the puck off the boards to Ray Sheppard, who skated down the left wing and fired a shot past Wendell Young to make it 2-0.
Although Pittsburgh scored early in the second to make it 2-1, the issue really never was in doubt. Benoit Hogue and Pierre Turgeon scored 1:35 apart midway through the second to make it 4-1. Rick Vaive and Uwe Krupp scored in the first 2:37 of the third period, and it was 6-1.
The only drama remaining was whether Lemieux would tally a point in his 39th consecutive game. He finally did, with 9:11 to play, stuffing a rebound past Daren Puppa while Kevin Maguire was off for interference.
Sabres coach Rick Dudley disagreed with the call on Maguire, but for once he did it with a smile. In retrospect, he even suggested it was all for the best that Lemieux kept his streak alive.
"We would have liked to stop the streak," Dudley said, "but when you think about it, if the streak continues a while longer, it'll be good for hockey. It'll be the lead story on sports channels all over America, and that's what we need for the game."
As Dudley noted, the game's superstars are also good for the Sabres. Buffalo is 4-0 this season against Lemieux's Penguins and Wayne Gretzky's L.A. Kings.
"I don't know what the reason is," said Vaive. "Maybe we're more focused on these games. Everyone is really involved. Everyone's awake and ready because they might get called on at any time. You have to be aware of those guys on the ice. So maybe everybody is into it a little more."
The point is, the best thing about these NHL superstars is when you stop them.