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Role players deliver for Penguins

| Thursday, March 13, 2008

It seems reasonable to suggest the Penguins will need captain Sidney Crosby - and right wing Marian Hossa, and at least a few of several other injured players - to win the Stanley Cup.

Of course, they might claim the Atlantic Division, not to mention the Eastern Conference's top playoff seed, with guys that began the season likely expecting to chase the Calder Cup in the AHL.

Tyler Kennedy, Jeff Taffe, Chris Minard and Kris Letang each scored to fuel the injury-plagued Penguins' 7-3 victory over the fading Buffalo Sabres at Mellon Arena on Wednesday.

Recognizable NHL stars Sergei Gonchar, Petr Sykora and Evgeni Malkin did their part, too.

"Sometimes I pinch myself coming into the dressing room because there are so many great players," Kennedy, a rookie, said after matching a career-best with three points. "We just have a great team right now."

Time will tell if the Penguins prove great.

Surely, they are gutsy.

Neither Crosby (sore right ankle) nor Hossa (sprained right medial collateral ligament) dressed, but the Penguins pulled even with Montreal atop the Eastern Conference. Their 87 points through 71 games are tied with the Canadiens, but the Penguins, at 40-24-7, have earned more victories.

The win against Buffalo increased the likelihood of earning a second consecutive postseason berth after no playoff appearances since 2001 before last season's surprise visit. The Penguins moved 12 points ahead of Buffalo, which was ninth in the East.

"We want to finish in first place," coach Michel Therrien said.

Their ability to win without Crosby, the reigning NHL scoring champion and MVP, remains equally remarkable and dumbfounding.

The Penguins are 12-6-4 sans Crosby, who has missed 22 of the past 25 games due to a high right ankle sprain. They have averaged 3.23 goals in games missed by Crosby, compared to 2.87 otherwise.

Their seven goals last night was a season high. They had scored six three times.

"It's just about proving people wrong," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "It's pretty special to have guys step in and do such a good job. These guys have come up and played so well.

"We have a close team, and that's really important. You see how well we've done, and you look at the list of the guys we'll get back - who knows how good we can be• We know we have a chance to go far, play really late into the spring, and that's our only goal."

Kennedy tallied his first since Jan. 5. He bested Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller on a breakaway at 3:30 of the first period for his ninth goal to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead. Taffe added his fifth at 6:35 and Gonchar his 11th at 18:08 of the second, pushing the lead to 3-0.

Sykora, despite a sore back, tallied his 23rd goal only 56 seconds into the third, and Malkin improved his career-best to 39 at 8:56 to answer two scores by the Sabres.

Goaltender Ty Conklin, starting for the first time since March 1, was superb through two periods, turning aside 19 shots. He allowed three goals on 13 shots over the final 20 minutes.

Minard and Letang closed the Penguins' scoring. Minard scored his first career goal at 10:03 and Letang his sixth at 13:23.

"It's great to see guys making good on their chance," Taffe said. "When you're missing the best players maybe you don't rely on them so much. You get caught up thinking they're going to win the game for you every night.

"It's good to know that we're a team that gets help from everybody."

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