PITTSBURGH – There was no warm welcome awaiting Michael Houser.
Houser, a product of Pittsburgh-area youth hockey programs, returned to the same city where he watched countless Penguins games, most notably Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s first Stanley Cup final appearance in 2008.
PITTSBURGH – Silence swept through PPG Paints Arena as Drake Caggiula raised his stick in th…
This time, though, Houser was in goal for the Buffalo Sabres, matched up against Crosby and Malkin, both of whom will try to capture their fourth Stanley Cup this season. With 20-plus family and friends in PPG Paints Arena, Houser endured a difficult three periods in which the Penguins’ stars and role players shined.
The Sabres received two goals from fourth-line winger Drake Caggiula to keep pace, but the Penguins pulled away behind four goals from Jeff Carter for an 8-4 win on Thursday night. With the loss, Buffalo (14-33-7) clinched the worst record in the National Hockey League and the best odds to select first overall in the draft.
The Sabres also failed to win back-to-back-to-back games for the first time this season and are 1-6 against the Penguins this season.
“To finally see your name on a line chart in the NHL is just one of the coolest things in the world,” Murray said.
Pittsburgh (36-16-3) regained sole possession of first place in the East Division, although the Washington Capitals have three games remaining, two against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins also received goals from Crosby, Brian Dumoulin, Jared McCann and Kasperi Kapanen.
Tage Thompson scored his career-best eighth goal of the season for Buffalo, and Houser stopped 26 of 34 shots while making his third consecutive start. Jeff Skinner added a goal on the power play in the third period.
Striking first: The Sabres scored first for only the 19th time in 55 games when Caggiula’s shot from the left-wing circle beat Tristan Jarry for a 1-0 lead at 2:45 into the game. Buffalo regained possession with Riley Sheahan forcing a turnover in the neutral zone.
Awaiting word: The crowd roared when Carter’s shot during a 2-on-1 went off Houser’s arm and appeared to cross the line, but the linesman initially thought that Rasmus Ristolainen managed to clear the puck just in time. Officials then stopped play and video review confirmed that Carter scored to tie it 1-1 at 9:57 into the first period.
The odd-man rush began because McCann got the puck behind Mattias Samuelsson, who got caught too high in the neutral zone.
For the Buffalo Sabres, is there a plan to win back fans beyond trying to win on the ice?
Bad timing: Arttu Ruotsalainen was penalized for tripping moments later and the Penguins’ power play, which entered Thursday ranked second in the NHL since March 1, gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead with Carter scoring his second of the game on a one-timer on a feed from Jason Zucker with 8:21 remaining in the first period.
The Sabres had only five shots on goal through the first 20 minutes.
Response: Casey Mittelstadt’s line rebounded from a difficult first period with Thompson scoring at 3:32 into the second to tie the score 2-2. Mittelstadt set up Thompson with a saucer pass through traffic.
No help: The Penguins needed only 64 seconds to take the 3-2 lead, as Carter scored off a rebound created by a Marcus Pettersson shot from the left-wing circle. Carter’s hat trick was the second allowed by the Sabres in the past week, following one by Boston’s Craig Smith in TD Garden. It was Carter’s first hat trick since March 28, 2018.
Finding room: Caggiula tied the score again with his second goal of the game when he received a pass from Colin Miller and beat Jarry with a shot from near the slot at 5:13 into the second period. Caggiula, a waiver claim by the Sabres, had one goal in 36 games entering Thursday.
Cook, 27, has played the organ at every Sabres home game this season, nearly all of them without fans in attendance, yet found a way to strike a meaningful chord with his audience.
Blemish: Houser’s most notable mistake came at 6:26 into the second period when Dumoulin’s point shot beat him short side for a 4-3 Penguins lead.
Untimely turnover: The flurry of goals concluded with McCann scoring with a wrist shot from the high slot with 12:35 remaining in the second period. The Penguins’ possession began with Henri Jokiharju turning the puck over on a breakout attempt from the defensive zone.
The two teams scored five goals in a span of 3:53.
Another one: Carter scored his fourth goal of the game with a backhander over Houser’s glove at 3:02 into the third period.
Roster move: Prior to puck drop, the Sabres assigned Jean-Sebastien Dea to make room for winger Brett Murray to make his NHL debut.
Goalie watch: Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark, who has been out with a lower-body injury since April 13, participated in the morning skate Thursday, but it’s “not probable” that he’s able to return for the finale Saturday. Interim coach Don Granato told reporters that he’s going to let Ullmark decide if he’s well enough to play.
“He knows the standard and our expectations of when we go in the net,” Granato said. “So, it would be a decision that he'd have to make based on after tomorrow, and the skate we have tomorrow. I would say it's not probable, but if he comes to me and says he's ready to go, I would probably make room for him.”
Next: The Sabres are scheduled to practice Friday in preparation for the season finale Saturday against the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena, which will begin at 3 p.m., Eastern.