BUFFALO — At the 11:43 mark of the second period Friday, slick Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby zoomed into the Sabres zone, slowed down at the top of the right circle and dished perfectly across the ice to a streaking James Neal, who beat goalie Ryan Miller to make it 3-2 on the power play.
Fresh off five straight convincing wins, the Sabres looked unstoppable, like they might run the table and roar into the postseason.
But in a showdown between the NHL’s two hottest clubs, the Sabres couldn’t contain Crosby, a dynamic, once-in-a-generation talent.
In his first appearance here in 15 months, Crosby torched the Sabres for four points – one goal and three assists – helping the Penguins down the Sabres 5-3 in a wildly entertaining affair before a loud capacity crowd of 18,690 fans inside the First Niagara Center.
The Sabres’ first regulation loss in 10 games and just their sixth in 30 games (19-6-5) kicked them back into ninth place in the Eastern Conference following a three-day stay in eighth.
“It’s just a blur. You just play your games and try to get your points,” said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who had allowed only three goals in the previous four games. “You can’t get too down. It’s been playoff mentality for a while.”
Eighth-place Washington and the Sabres both have 86 points with four games remaining. The Capitals hold the tiebreaker with more regulation and overtime wins, however.
The Sabres play tonight in Toronto, where the hapless Maple Leafs have lost 11 straight home games.
“It’s a tight race,” Miller said. “We’d prefer just to win out. That’s in a perfect world. But there’s … going to be some battles. We’re going to have to come up with some points people probably don’t expect us to get.”