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Sabres rediscover their identity, start fast in 5-2 win over Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH – The start to the game Saturday afternoon was everything coach Ralph Krueger envisioned when preparing the Buffalo Sabres.

His checking line, led by Johan Larsson, forechecked the Pittsburgh Penguins into a mistake and scored 14 seconds into the first period when Zemgus Girgensons was left uncovered in front of the net.

The Sabres' lead grew to three goals less than 11 minutes later when Jack Eichel fired a wrist shot under Tristan Jarry's blocker, causing Penguins coach Mike Sullivan to call a timeout. It was the third time in as many games Buffalo built a lead of two or more goals.

The Sabres didn't crumble this time, though. Four days after blowing a two-goal lead in Ottawa, Buffalo had four different players score, including two from Eichel and a slump-ending goal from Jeff Skinner, in a 5-2 win over the Penguins in PPG Paints Arena.

The manner in which the Sabres dispatched the Penguins, who are tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division, illustrated how Eichel and company have improved since their second-half collapse last season.

"A year ago, I don’t think we would have had an effort like that in this situation, and I think we’ve all grown up a little bit," Eichel said after scoring his 34th and 35th goals. "It’s just about that consistency."

It was an important response after the Sabres allowed four goals in less than four minutes during a 7-4 loss Tuesday in Ottawa. Krueger used their last two practices this week to drill the importance of being responsible without the puck.

Strong defense and goaltending kept the Sabres in the race when Victor Olofsson missed most of January with a lower-body injury. In addition to having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins entered Saturday having allowed the second-fewest goals in the National Hockey League. Their 22 home wins led the league and their goaltending duo's .925 save percentage in Pittsburgh ranked second.

Buffalo's players didn't deviate from an identity Krueger has described as "Sabres hockey." It began with the first shift when Kyle Okposo retrieved a loose puck behind Pittsburgh's net and sent a centering pass to Girgensons, whose low shot beat Jarry for a 1-0 lead.

Sam Reinhart then used his stick to deflect Kris Letang's breakout pass and knocked the puck out of the air with his hand. Reinhart drove to the net with the puck on his backhand and moved it to his forehand before lifting a shot over Jarry's blocker for a 2-0 lead at 6:48 into the game.

"We really just came in here, regrouped and tried to get back to what we were doing in the games before," Krueger said. "I’m just really pleased with the four-line, six-D, goaltending effort all the way through the lineup. Everybody contributed today. Yeah, it’s an excellent reaction in a very tough building to react in."

The Penguins made a critical mistake by giving Eichel plenty of time and space on the power play. The Sabres' 23-year-old captain received a pass from Rasmus Ristolainen and faked a shot to the far post before unleashing a wrister near side for a 3-0 lead at 10:51 into the game.

Sullivan explained to reporters afterward that the Penguins were "beating ourselves," so he decided to use his timeout to reinforce the need for a more responsible approach. The Sabres, meanwhile, were discussing the importance of continuing to apply pressure on defense and to prevent Pittsburgh from generating offense off the rush.

A potential turning point occurred less than five minutes following Eichel's goal when Colin Miller was penalized for shoving Patric Hornqvist to the ice, an act of retaliation after the Penguins forward elbowed Marcus Johansson near the right-wing boards.

The Sabres' penalty kill, which entered Saturday ranked 30th in the NHL, proceeded to kill off the infraction. Goalie Carter Hutton stopped Crosby's rebound shot near side to preserve the 3-0 lead.

"It’s a really good hockey team over there, and I think when we come in this building we understand what we’re up against and the way we need to play," Eichel said. "I don’t think we deviate from that and I think that’s what makes us successful. It’s important that you come in with that mindset no matter who you’re playing or where you are. It seems like when we go on the road and play against some of these top teams in the league we really respect the opponent and we respect our game."

The first goal against didn't have much of an impact. Malkin scored his first of two goals by knifing across the slot and beating Hutton with a wrist shot 11:10 into the second period. After a brief lull, the Sabres finished the second period with two significant scoring chances, including Skinner's wrist shot during a 2 on 1.

A strong start to the third led to more offense, when Skinner ended his career-long 22-game goal drought by redirecting a pass from Johansson between Jarry's leg pads to make it 4-1 at 5:39 into the third period. Consistent defensive play from every forward allowed Krueger to sparse out the ice time, as no Sabre logged more than 18:30 and no less than 12:39. Ten different Sabres had at least two shots on goal and there weren't any significant defensive blunders after Henri Jokiharju turned the puck over moments before Malkin's first goal.

The Sabres' power play, which entered Saturday ranked 18th in the NHL, struck again with 7:43 remaining in regulation. Eichel scored on another wrist shot from the left circle, though he fooled Jarry with a shot to the top corner.

"I think we did a good job of sticking with it," Skinner said. "The D did a great job all night sort of being up the ice and limiting their time and space in the neutral zone. It allowed us to get more breakout opportunities instead of them carrying it in off the rush. I thought even after that first goal we were able to stay aggressive and that was big for us."

Malkin made it 5-2 by scoring off a rebound, but Hutton finished with 41 saves to close out Buffalo's fourth win in five games. The Sabres (28-25-8) avoided falling further out of the playoff chase and host Winnipeg on Sunday for the final game before the trade deadline.

The deficit can seem daunting considering only 21 games remain in the regular season. However, the Sabres have a blue print for success, something they lacked during their historic collapse a year ago.

"We're just trying to chip away," Hutton said. "In the big, grand scheme of things we've got a lot of work to do, but right now, we can just only focus on what's at hand here and what's in front of us."

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