PITTSBURGH – Reeling from three straight losses, the Pittsburgh Penguins will again be without Sidney Crosby tonight when puck drops at 7 against the Sabres. Pittsburgh's also turning to its backup goalie and lost another key player, Matt Cullen, to a long-term injury.
On the other side, Buffalo has won five in a row and a win tonight would give the franchise its first six-game streak since 2010. A win or overtime loss would give the Sabres points in six straight for the first time since they did so in nine straight back in 2012.
They're now 12-6-2, tied with Columbus for third in the Eastern Conference, and coming off wins over two of the NHL's best: Winnipeg and Minnesota. Phil Housley is seeking a fast start against a desperate opponent that's suddenly at the bottom of the conference with 17 points in 18 games.
Here are Five Things to Know about tonight's game:
1. The Times They are a Changin': The Penguins have two transcendent talents down the middle, a goalie whom many expected to be among the NHL's best and forward depth that would make many general managers envious.
Yet, the team is a complete mess. In addition the overall record, Pittsburgh is 2-7-1 over its last 10 games, 0-7-1 when trailing after two periods and 2-8-2 against the Eastern Conference. Remember, this team was struggling when Crosby was healthy. Though Crosby skated with the team Monday morning, he's still day to day with an upper-body injury.
In search for a spark, General Manager Jim Rutherford dealt Carl Hagelin to the Los Angeles Kings for Tanner Pearson last week. Like last season, the Penguins have received little help from their bottom six. Their defense also has been atrocious, a welcome matchup for the Sabres after facing two of the toughest defensive teams in the league.
"I think some of their young players are starting to come into their own and some of the additions that they’ve added in the offseason have certainly made them a much more competitive team," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said of the Sabres. "I think their team speed is improved. They obviously are playing well at this particular point winning five in a row, so it’s obviously going to be a big challenge for us."
2. Murray a Mess: Rutherford's decision to sign defenseman Jack Johnson hasn't panned out. Johnson's a minus-9 with five points in 18 games. The Penguins also don't have much depth on the blue line. But one could argue their goalie has been the greatest disappointment.
Matt Murray, the 24-year-old with two Stanley Cup rings, has the second-worst save percentage (.877) and worst goals against average (4.08) among goalies with at least 10 games played this season. He's been pulled in two of his last three starts and four times in 11 games.
As a result, backup Casey DeSmith will start tonight against the Sabres. DeSmith has a 2.25 goals against average and .930 save percentage in 11 games this season.
3. Avoiding slow start: The Penguins, much like Buffalo, tend to have reckless play in their own zone and have a propensity to turn the puck over with bad passes in the neutral zone, but they have the defensemen to execute a lethal transition game.
Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have combined for 48 points, and the Penguins are 10th in the NHL in shots per game. This remains one of the most talented rosters in the NHL. The Sabres will need to avoid another slow start. They can't continue to get away with sloppy play for 20-minute stretches, and they can't continue to rely on Hutton this much every night.
Hutton is 4-0 with a 1.42 goals against average and a .950 save percentage in his last four games. His career numbers against Pittsburgh: 2-0 with two shutouts and a .987 save percentage. Hutton will start in goal after being given the night off Saturday against the Minnesota Wild.
"I think it’s just being ready," Housley said of needing a faster start. "We talk about it a lot. It’s different than executing it. ... Tonight we're going to be facing a team that’s very desperate, so we know the first five minutes are going to be very important for us to execute early and try to relieve some of that pressure."
4. Pominville back on top: Housley wanted Jason Pominville on the ice more. That's why Pominville was moved back to the top line during that third-period rally Saturday. Sam Reinhart wasn't playing poorly, but the offense was stagnant.
Pominville seems to have unique chemistry with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. So, the line will be together again. Eichel and Skinner have a 60 percent Corsi with Pominville, compared to 41.9 percent without him. Simply put, anything over 50 percent shows a team is controlling play more often than not.
There were no other changes for the Sabres during the morning skate.
#Sabres line rushes during morning skate:
Rodrigues, Beaulieu and Elie rotating in.
— Lance Lysowski (@LLysowski) November 19, 2018
5. Sheary's homecoming: Conor Sheary will likely be welcomed back to Pittsburgh with a video tribute. The 26-year-old winger won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins before he was traded to the Sabres in June.
This is his first game facing his old teammates, earning him the honor of leading the morning stretch midway through the skate.