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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Three months ago, the mere suggestion that an early April meeting between the Penguins and Buffalo Sabres could prove a preview for a playoff series in early May would have seemed -- at best -- wildly wishful thinking.

It still might, especially if the Penguins' power-play performs in the postseason as it did Tuesday.

The Sabres lived up to their billing as the Eastern Conference's Stanley Cup favorite with a convincing 4-1 victory over the Penguins at Mellon Arena, snapping Pittsburgh's six-game home win streak.

In New Jersey, the Devils defeated Ottawa, 2-1, in a shootout. With only two games remaining, the Penguins trail the Devils by three points in the Atlantic Division. They also are two points behind the Ottawa Senators in the race for fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

The Penguins will need to win in Ottawa on Thursday to have any shot at gaining home-ice advantage in the opening round of the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs. The Penguins must finish with more points than either the Devils or Senators because they will lose tiebreakers due to having fewer victories than either club.

For the Sabres, the victory secured home-ice advantage through the conference playoffs. They will enter the Stanley Cup playoffs as the top seed.

"The biggest thing about them is that they started strong, got hit by some injuries, and they've just kept it going," defenseman Brooks Orpik said of the Sabres, who have gone 22-14-4 over the past three months after starting the season 28-7-2.

"They have a lot of good players that have come up and done well. It's really impressive. They're going to be a tough team to beat in the playoffs."

With a 29-8-5 record from January through March, the Penguins had done well to make even Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff wonder if, despite their collective inexperience, they might not prove long for the playoffs, too.

"The way they have played the past 40 games, I'm convinced they can make a long run," Ruff said prior to the game last night. "I'm not surprised by anything they've done over the past three months."

Specifically, Ruff suggested that perhaps the only way to stop the Penguins' young stars, such as scoring leader Sidney Crosby and Calder Trophy candidates Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, was to stay out of the penalty box.

"If you don't, Pittsburgh has enough talent to really make you pay," Ruff said.

Never in his wildest dreams could Ruff have imagined that the Penguins' vaunted power-play, ranked fifth in the league at 20.4 percent, would prove so futile against the Sabres -- especially at home, where the Penguins were operating at an efficiency of 21.3 percent.

Last night, without one of its anchors, defenseman Ryan Whitney, the Penguins' power play went scoreless on eight attempts. In their previous two games against the Sabres, Pittsburgh had gone 4 of 8 on man-advantage chances.

"We just didn't take advantage of our chances," Crosby said. "We had enough of them."

Whitney, nursing a groin injury, said that he hopes to return against the Senators. Clearly, the Penguins missed his presence on the left point against Buffalo.

Down 2-1 in the second period but benefiting from 27 seconds of a two-man advantage, the Penguins failed to register a shot on Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller. When that advantage ended, the Penguins used the remaining 1:33 of man-advantage time to fire exactly zero pucks Miller's way.

"I'm not going to take anything away from (Whitney) because there is no doubt he has been great back there, but there are going to be times when you're missing somebody on the power-play -- you still have to find a way," Crosby said.

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