BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Phew, that was close for Sidney Crosby and Pittsburgh Penguins, who finally clinched a playoff berth in their final game of the season.
Relief had yet to give way to excitement in the Penguins’ locker room shortly after a 2-0 win over the last-place Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.
“Geez,” said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 28 shots to earn his league-leading 10th shutout. “Other than my first couple of years, we’ve always been in there and never cut it so close in the end. It was a little bit crazy.”
Brandon Sutter scored twice and the Penguins snapped an 0-4-1 skid to secure the Eastern Conference’s remaining wild-card spot and eliminate the Boston Bruins in the process. Pittsburgh extended its postseason string to nine consecutive seasons — the NHL’s second-longest streak behind the Detroit Red Wings’ 24 — and avoided a near monumental late-season collapse.
“Yeah, when you’re hanging around and waiting to clinch and waiting and waiting, waiting, and it comes down to the last day, obviously it makes things pretty interesting,” said Crosby. “Obviously we’re happy to be in there now.”
The Penguins (43-27-12), who will face the New York Rangers in the first round, limped into the playoffs by going 4-9-2 over their final 15 games. And they also overcame a banged-up blue line that was down to five defensemen over the final week.
“There’s been a lot of sleepless night nights,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “It hasn’t been easy. And I’m proud of the way we were able to close it out tonight.”
The Sabres (23-51-8) matched a franchise-low for losses for the second straight season. They were also shut out for the 14th time this year — four more than Buffalo’s previous single-season record.
“It’s been a trying year,” Buffalo coach Ted Nolan said. “I thought we tried as hard as we could. Whether the glass is half full or half empty, we did what we did with the energy we had.”
At least the Sabres kept it close in losing their sixth straight to the Penguins. In their previous five meetings, Buffalo was outscored 23-3 by Pittsburgh.
Buffalo kept the Penguins off the board until Sutter scored on their 25th shot with 5:37 left in the second period.
Accepting Blake Comeau’s pass along the end boards to the right of the net, Sutter cut to the front, a step ahead of defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. Leaning hard on his backhand, Sutter then got a hard shot off that beat goalie Anders Lindback inside the left post.
Sutter then sealed it 8:26 into the third period with his 21st of the season, to match a single-season best. Following a turnover at the Sabres blue line, Penguins center Daniel Winnik gloved down Patric Hornqvist’s pass in the right circle. Winnik slid a pass through the middle, which Sutter swept into the open side while avoiding a last-gasp poke check by Buffalo captain Brian Gionta.
“It’s always nice to score goals, but to win is big, especially that one,” Sutter said. “We deserved a bit of a better fate. And tonight we finally got it.”
Fleury, named the team’s season MVP, doubled his previous career-best shutout total, and finished with three more than the single-season team record set by Tom Barrasso in 1997-98.
His best stop came with 1:17 left, when Fleury got across to his right in time to stop Tyler Ennis’ one-timer.
The Sabres will settle on drafting no worse than second, and a guaranteed shot at landing either Erie Otters center Connor McDavid or Boston University’s Jack Eichel, this year’s Hobey Baker winner. The NHL’s draft lottery to determine who picks first will be held April 18.
During a pregame fan appreciation ceremony, Sabres president Ted Black thanked fans for “sticking with us” through what’s been a challenging year. “There’s been a lot asked of you to go through the process we’re going through,” Black added, before prompting a “Let’s go Buffalo,” chant.
Nolan’s future is uncertain. Though Nolan has two seasons left on the contract he signed a year ago, the Sabres’ record and a poor working relationship with general manager Tim Murray could lead to an offseason change.
General manager Tim Murray has maintained that he along with everyone else will be evaluated by owner Terry Pegula once the season ends.
NOTES: Crosby failed to earn a point for the first time in 16 career games at Buffalo. He also had a 19-game point streak snapped against the Sabres dating to Dec. 29, 2007. … The Sabres finished with 153 goals, three more than they managed last season when Buffalo set an NHL post-expansion era low. … Ennis was named the Sabres MVP after leading the team with 20 goals and 46 points.
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