Andrew McCutchen, left front row, Garrett Jones, second from right front row, and Tony Sanchez, second from left, back row, watch an NHL hockey game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. The Pirates face the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the NL division series on Sunday in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
by Dan Scifo
Associated Press Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The past two seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins have topped the NHL in scoring. They’ve come up short in the playoffs both times, eliminated with a pair of disappointing early exits.
The Penguins are playing better defense so far this season, and embattled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is leading the way.
Sidney Crosby and Chuck Kobasew each scored his second goal and Fleury was nearly perfect again, making 20 saves to lead Pittsburgh over the Buffalo Sabres 4-1 on Saturday night.
“I like the way our team has played defense,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “When it has been difficult, there have been breakdowns or chances, (Fleury) has been up to the task and has been really solid.”
Fleury has sparkled through two games, turning aside 47 of 48 shots. He earned his 250th career victory and 24th shutout in a 3-0 win Thursday against New Jersey, and nearly wound up with consecutive shutouts.
Fleury went 1:15:06 without allowing a goal — the longest shutout streak to begin a season in franchise history — until Thomas Vanek scored at 15:06 of the third period Saturday. It was the seventh straight time Vanek scored against the Penguins.
“As a goalie, it’s always something you like to do,” Fleury said of getting a shutout. “I don’t want to be selfish about it. We got a win and that’s all that matters.”
Craig Adams also scored his second goal, a late empty-netter, and Chris Kunitz converted a penalty shot to help the Penguins open 2-0 for the third straight season. Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen added two assists and forward Pascal Dupuis, playing in his 800th game, also had an assist.
“I think we’re pretty good as far as our structure defensively,” Crosby said. “That’s usually something that takes a little more time, but I think we’ve looked pretty comfortable with the way we need to play defensively.”
Fleury has been the catalyst.
He has displayed the confidence and poise unseen last spring when he lost the starting job to Tomas Vokoun after compiling a 3.40 goals-against average during an ugly first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders.
Fleury should receive ample opportunity to build his confidence with Vokoun out three to six months due to blood clots in his hips. The defense will be there to help, too.
The Penguins were disciplined in front of Fleury, blocking pucks and limiting Buffalo to 14 shots through two periods — including five in the second. Fleury did his part during a late second-period power play, denying Tyler Ennis and Vanek’s rebound in the slot, keeping the Penguins ahead by a pair after two periods.
“A lot of the shots he was solid, square, and directed the rebound in the right way,” Bylsma said. “I felt he was really in control of the net tonight even though it was 21 shots.”
The Sabres (0-3) are approaching their worst start since opening 0-5 with two ties during the 1999-2000 season.
Ryan Miller was brilliant Friday, stopping 45 shots during a 1-0 home loss to Ottawa, but he missed Saturday’s game with a lower body injury. He is expected to return for the Sabres’ home game Tuesday against Tampa Bay.
Backup goalie Jhonas Enroth got the call Saturday, making 31 saves. He didn’t get much help from the offensively challenged Sabres, who have two goals in their first three games. Buffalo, also 0 for 13 on the power play, is experiencing growing pains, starting three teenagers and five rookies.
“We didn’t generate a lot,” coach Ron Rolston said. “We just have to be a lot simpler than we are right now. We pass up opportunities when we do get them.”
For the second straight game, Crosby and Kobasew staked the Penguins to a two-goal lead in the first period.
Dupuis sent a spinning backhand pass from the slot to Crosby, who smacked his own rebound past Enroth, extending his point streak to 15 games against the Sabres.
Kobasew struck 10 minutes later, deflecting Brandon Sutter’s slap shot from the point under Enroth’s glove.
Kunitz put it away midway through the third when he scored on a penalty shot, banking the puck off Enroth’s body and into the net.
“I like how our team has played as a group, and we can certainly credit Marc-Andre Fleury with some great saves and great performances,” Bylsma said. “We haven’t given up a lot and that’s been excellent to see out of our team.”
NOTES: Penguins All-Star forward James Neal is week-to-week with an upper body injury. … Sabres D Henrik Tallinder, who sustained an upper body injury Friday against Ottawa, will miss about a week. … D Alexander Sulzer, recalled Saturday, was scratched for the Sabres along with John Scott. D Deryk Engelland sat out for the Penguins. … The Penguins conclude a three-game homestand Tuesday against Carolina.