Fleury stands tall in relief, Penguins rally by Sabres 4-3
PITTSBURGH (AP) — His team flat, listless and basically overwhelmed during a miserable first period against Buffalo on Sunday, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan looked down his bench searching for a jolt.
He found one in Marc-Andre Fleury, who wondered in recent weeks if his time with the only NHL team he’s ever known was winding down as the trade deadline closed in and Matt Murray kept getting start after start after start.
The Penguins held on to Fleury rather than part with the winningest goaltender in team history. They held onto him for games like Sunday, when his appearance on the ice seemed to calm down his struggling team and set the stage for a frantic comeback.
Fleury turned aside all 28 shots he faced in two periods and Pittsburgh rallied for an improbable 4-3 victory over the Sabres when Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary scored 50 seconds apart late in the third period.
For Fleury, it was career victory No. 373, and maybe one of the sweetest. He heard the roar from the 464th consecutive sellout at PPG Paints Arena when his No. 29 skated onto the ice. Two hours later, he raised his stick aloft after being named the game’s No. 1 star.
“I’ve seen this team do it (come back) many times,” said Fleury after the Penguins took over second place in the crowded Metropolitan Division. “I was just thinking to try to keep the team in the game and I was confident we could come back.”
Evgeni Malkin had a goal and an assist during a dominant second period to get Pittsburgh started after falling into a 3-0 hole. Justin Schultz added a goal and two assist, including the slick cross-ice feed that set up Sheary’s winner with 2:56 left in regulation.
“I saw (Schultz) see me, and I was definitely screaming for it,” Sheary said. “He put it right on my tape.”
Buffalo star Jack Eichel scored to extend his points streak to an NHL-best 10 games. Ryan O’Reilly scored in his third straight game and Brian Gionta picked up his 14th of the season, but the Sabres crumpled late. Anders Nilsson finished with 41 saves, but the Sabres let their flickering playoff hopes take another hit.
“We played aggressive in the first, then we sat back and let them take it to us in the second and third,” Eichel said. “The tale of every game that we’ve played in the last few. So, nothing changes and we blow another lead.”
Less than 24 hours removed from a shootout loss at home to Tampa Bay, the Sabres hardly looked tired during the opening 20 minutes. Buffalo poured in three goals on Murray in the first period, all of them from close range. O’Reilly chipped one over Murray’s shoulder 6:19 into the game, Gionta’s power-play goal 14:53 into the first doubled the lead and Eichel rifled a loose puck by Murray’s stick at 18:07 for a 3-0 advantage that felt even larger.
The Penguins pulled Murray in favor of Fleury going into the second, though Murray was hardly to blame considering the wide open swaths of ice the Sabres skated through on the way to the Pittsburgh net. Sullivan said the move was “about the whole group” and not because of particularly poor play by Murray.
Either way, Fleury’s arrival seemed to wake up his teammates. None more than Malkin.
The Russian star has been on a tear and kept it going during a barrage in the second period that fueled Pittsburgh’s rally. He helped set up Justin Schultz’s goal 7:45 into the second that gave the Penguins life and added his 29th of the season at 13:42 with a laser of a one-timer from the right circle, his NHL-leading 46th point at home.
The Sabres collected themselves in the third and appeared to have things in hand when Sheary and Guentzel struck. Guentzel reached back to redirect Sheary’s shot from the point that slipped past Nilsson with 3:46 left in regulation to tie it. The goal stood after officials determined Guentzel’s stick wasn’t too high when the puck smacked off it on the way to the net.
“Was the stick high? Yeah,” Eichel said. “Was it a high stick and not a goal? I don’t know.”
NOTES: Pittsburgh D Mark Streit nearly scored his second goal in two games since joining the Penguins last week, but officials ruled his rolling shot in the first period didn’t fully cross the goal line before being flipped away. … Schultz’s 11 goals tie a career high set with Edmonton in 2013-14. … Penguins D Kris Letang missed his fifth straight game with an upper-body injury. Sullivan indicated Letang could be out longer than previously thought. … Buffalo D Dmitry Kulikov was scratched after sustaining an upper-body injury on Saturday against Tampa Bay. … The Sabres were 1 for 5 on the power play. Pittsburgh