More than four months and 60 games ago, the Buffalo Sabres dominated the Pittsburgh Penguins and were deserving of full marks in a 3-1 win that opened their season.
A whole lot has happened since then as the teams reconvene 1 p.m. Saturday in PPG Paints Arena.
The Sabres have battled injuries all season and their maddening inconsistency has left them too far out of the playoff hunt to avoid being sellers yet again at Monday's NHL trade deadline. The Penguins remain the Penguins, hunting yet another Stanley Cup even in the face of a colossal injury battle that would have almost assuredly crushed the hopes of most teams.
"They certainly have a core of experienced players where anybody coming up filling those holes, it seems like it's nonnegotiable to play the right way in Pittsburgh," Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said after practice Friday in KeyBank Center.
The Penguins' current injury list includes center Nick Bjugstad (40 games), defenseman Brian Dumoulin (32), winger Jake Guentzel (20), defenseman John Marino (6) and forward Zach Aston-Reese (2).
It's been an epidemic all season. Captain Sidney Crosby missed 28 games over two months after core muscle surgery. Other key absences and the games they've missed are: defensemen Justin Schultz (23) and Kris Letang (8) and forwards Patric Hornqvist (16) and Evgeni Malkin (13).
Even after Thursday's 4-0 loss in Toronto, the Penguins have gone 23-7-2 in their last 32 games to wipe out a 13-point deficit and tie Washington for first place in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh was fifth in the division through 27 games (14-9-4).
"They slipped off their game for a bit last night for a period, but we have so much respect for what they do and the consistency they bring," Krueger said. "That's what you're working on here, a consistent culture where the players in the end are the biggest part of the check system and the coaches are guiding."
Sabres winger Conor Sheary scored two goals in that October matchup and knows exactly what makes those Penguins tick from his days as a Cup winner with them in 2016 and 2017.
"It's sticking within your system. When you lose a guy like Sid (Crosby) in their lineup or if Jack Eichel goes down in our lineup, it's time for other guys to step up," Sheary said. "You get more opportunity and you have to take advantage of that. If you stay within the system, that's when the team is at its best and it's not an individual game. They've done a really good job of that this year and they're in a good spot in the standings because of it."
Crosby has 23 points (7-16) in 14 games since returning from his injury, third in the NHL in that span behind Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl and Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov. He had a four-point night in his first game back.
"We have great character and leadership in our room and these guys never look for excuses," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "They find ways to win games. When someone goes down, it provides an opportunity for someone else to step up. A lot of it is your own attitude and perception and I give these guys a lot of credit. The expectation is that we have enough to win.”
"It's a next-guy-up sort of mentality," Eichel said. "They've always been really good at that. They've had key guys go down at different times and they always seem to find a way to get through it."
Injuries, of course, have been a key problem for the Sabres all season and prolonged absences of Victor Olofsson, Rasmus Dahlin, Jeff Skinner, Linus Ullmark and Vladimir Sobotka have been a major detriment to their season.
The Sabres have also rarely found the kind of all-around performance they authored in Game 1, when they got a strong effort at both ends of the ice and airtight goaltending from Carter Hutton.
"It was quite astounding out of training camp the habits we showed, the energy we had and the speed with which we played," Krueger said of the opener, which he said he reviewed Thursday. "That keeps popping up. At least we have that picture in our heads."
"That's probably the poster right there for our style and exactly how we want to play," Eichel said. "Obviously we haven't done it every night this year, but we did it on opening night against a really good hockey club."
The Sabres have found that kind of game from time to time, especially on the road in places like Edmonton, Dallas and New York. Just not nearly enough.
"Pittsburgh is a group that's got that nailed and it's quite remarkable how they find that consistency every season," Krueger said. "Even through injuries, the machine keeps rolling. Even through transfers in the summertime, the machine keeps rolling and we can take a lot from that.
"We just need to keep working on the execution behind it. That first game truly going back and looking at it was quite an amazing performance coming out of training camp. It continues to be one of the benchmarks of the season."