PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins are still determined to finish as the NHL’s best team – despite a recent slump.
The Penguins rebounded from a loss on Saturday and beat the league’s worst team Monday night as goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 24 shots for his fourth shutout, a 3-0 win against the Buffalo Sabres.
“When you play 82 every one isn’t going to be perfect, but we’re trying to be the best, not just into late June, but every game,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said.
Chris Kunitz scored his 26th goal and Deryk Engelland netted his fourth, equaling a career high. Tanner Glass scored his first goal in 26 games, a late empty-netter that sealed it for the Penguins, who won for the 15th time in 16 games at home.
Sidney Crosby, who leads the NHL with 74 points, added two assists to extend his points streak in games against Buffalo to 16 games, matching his longest streak against any team.
Fleury, who leads the NHL with 29 wins, registered his 27th career shutout, tied for second in the league. He helped preserve the win, denying Buffalo’s Brian Flynn two minutes into the third period before following it up with a right-pad stop on Matt Moulson on a partial breakaway a couple minutes later.
“The first one was pretty close, and I was worried he might have cut across, so I tried to take his options away,” said Fleury, who is one victory away from reaching the 30-win mark for the fifth-straight full NHL season.
“Moulson, I was trying to be patient because I know he has good hands,” he added.
Fleury was better on the play, giving his team a sorely-needed lift after a slow start to the period.
“We chipped some pucks out in the beginning of the third period, kind of sitting back, and they shoved it right back at us,” Bylsma said. “Marc got stuck with those two glorious chances against. the two great saves he had to make.”
The Penguins are in command of the Eastern Conference, leading Boston and Tampa Bay by seven points in addition to a 15-point cushion on the New York Rangers in the Metropolitan Division entering Monday.
But Pittsburgh has struggled recently with a lackluster home effort last Monday against Florida – 15th in the 16-team Eastern Conference – and a 3-0 loss Saturday at Dallas.
It wasn’t perfect, but the Penguins were able to turn it around on Monday.
“We still had times when we weren’t getting pucks deep, turning it over, and giving them chances to get back into the game,” Kunitz said. “Our goalie made a few great saves, a few that went through his body, could’ve hit somebody and went in the other way.”
Goaltender Ryan Miller stopped 31 shots for last-place Buffalo, which has lost seven of nine.
The Sabres, who scored at least three goals the previous six games, won for the first time five games on Saturday, scoring a 5-2 victory at Columbus and stopping the red-hot Blue Jackets’ franchise-record eight-game winning streak, but they couldn’t sustain the momentum.
“We’re a team that we can’t have glaring mistakes,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “It’s very demoralizing. We woke up in the third period and made a push, but not good enough.”
The Penguins, after a scoreless opening period, scored at 14:16 of the second.
Brian Gibbons, who missed five games with a lower-body injury, hit the post on a one-timer from Crosby. The red goal light behind the net momentarily turned on before Kunitz swept the rebound into a partially empty net.
Engelland scored later in the period, forcing a turnover in the Sabres’ zone before lifting a pass from Glass over a sprawled Miller.
That was good enough for the Penguins, who continue to try and perfect their stride despite leading the Eastern Conference.
“We still need to get better as a team and grow,” Kunitz said. “We have 30-some games before the playoffs to make sure we’re running on all cylinders, and make sure we’re the best team going into the playoffs.”
Penguins’ F Evgeni Malkin played in his 500th NHL game, becoming the 15th player in team history to reach the milestone. ... The Penguins are 27-2-1, and a perfect 18-0 at home when scoring first. ... Pittsburgh has won 40 of its last 48 home games dating back to last season. ... Chuck Kobasew, who played on Pittsburgh’s top line the past four games, was a healthy scratch on Monday in addition to Andrew Ebbett and Robert Bortuzzo. Buffalo scratched Drew Stafford, John Scott, and Alexander Sulzer ... Buffalo plays the second half of a back-to-back Tuesday at home against Washington. ... Pittsburgh opens a two-game West Coast swing Thursday at Los Angeles ... The two teams meet for the third and final time this season next Wednesday at Buffalo.