By Bill Hoppe
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.”
Few expected the Sabres could stymie Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the NHL’s leading scorer, completely.
But the two dominated much of the game, especially with the Sabres taking too many penalties and killing them poorly.
Malkin opened the scoring on the power play, his 48th tally, just 3:50 into the game. The Sabres had killed 12 straight penalties. He later assisted on Neal’s score, his 102nd point.
“I think the biggest difference was we didn’t get the job done penalty killing, which hurt us,” Ruff said.
Still, the Sabres countered quickly.
Jordan Leopold tied it at 6:35, his first goal since Jan. 24, a 29-game stretch.
Crosby put the Penguins up again at 12:52, but Tyler Ennis knotted it a few minutes later, his weak shot from the right boards getting between backup goalie Brent Johnson’s pads somehow.
Johnson, who got yanked from a start here in February, looked shaky early before settling down.
He gave up some big rebounds throughout, and the Sabres kicked themselves for not converting.
“We were saying we need to get pucks on him and just throw everything to the net, because he was throwing out some juicy rebounds,” Ennis said. “To his credit he made some big saves.”
Ruff added: “We’ve been able to capitalize on a lot of those great opportunities. We didn’t capitalize on some really good ones. When you don’t, you keep yourself in a tight game.”
Then Crosby’s 600th NHL point on Neal’s 38th goal was a beauty.
“Probably his passing is just as good as anybody in this league, and when he lays a pass over, it’s a flat pass,” Ruff said.
Steve Sullivan made it 4-2 before Thomas Vanek scored.
The Sabres generated a slew of chances late, including one Drew Stafford mishandled alone in front in the waning seconds.
Jordan Staal’s empty-netter sealed it.
“We had a couple of opportunities … we just missed by maybe half a foot,” Leopold said. “We got better as the game progressed. We kind got off to a slow start. Penalties, special teams, they kind of took advantage of that.
“That’s it. We move on to (tonight). We’ve worked real hard to get here. We’re not going to let this one get us down.”