For the most part, the matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins was set up to be a typical late-March contest between a surefire Stanley Cup contender and a team that will be golfing in April.
Then Sidney Crosby entered the equation.
The Pens’ captain put an exclamation mark on the game with one of the best goals of the 2016-17 season with the first period nearly over and the Sabres never recovered – leading to a 3-1 win for Pittsburgh.
“The beginning of the first period and in the beginning of the second, we let them get some breaks,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “Their speed out to the neutral zone got some breakaways… other than that, I thought our group battled hard and didn’t give up a ton.”
Matters soured for the Sabres almost seemingly from the get-go. Early in the first period, Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly appeared to be slashed near the groin by Crosby and no penalty was called by the on-ice officials. Moments later, defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen lined up Penguins forward Jake Guentzel with a devastating open-ice hit – earning himself a five-minute major penalty for interference and a game misconduct.
Finding themselves down a rearguard – arguably the team’s best – for the rest of the game, the Sabres knew it would be a challenge to replace Ristolainen against the defending Cup champions, and it showed.
“Losing our top guy, that’s always going to be tough,” Josh Gorges said. “I think we were OK. But we didn’t enough things when we put ourselves in that position to give ourselves a real good chance.”
Buffalo was able to kill off the major penalty, but with the team having to stop another powerplay later in the period, Crosby struck. The man widely believed to be the best player in the world took the puck in his own end and went coast-to-coast, splitting between two defenders and slipping a one-handed backhander past goaltender Robin Lehner with 8.2 seconds left.
“He had a ton of speed through the middle of the ice and kind of rolled through the seam,” Bylsma said. “It’s something he’s done many times before, squeaked his way in there and made a pretty amazing shot.”
Lehner sung his own praises of Crosby’s goal afterwards as well.
“Most goalies in the league are going to read he’s going to pull that back to his forehand,” Lehner said. “That’s what I thought. There’s probably one or maybe two guys in the league that can score a goal like that.”
A little more than two minutes into the third period, Sam Reinhart was able to knot up the score at a goal apiece by burying his own rebound past Matt Murray, but it was all the offense the Sabres could muster.
Bad luck continued the team’s way as Nick Bonino slipped a wrist shot past a screened Lehner to give the Penguins the lead, and a short while later, Conor Sheary fired a shot at Lehner, who made the save but couldn’t control the puck. The puck then hit Zemgus Girgensons’ skate and redirected into the net, giving the Penguins a 3-1 win.
Ristolainen’s penalty may earn himself a short ban, and while the Finnish defenseman hasn’t been suspended yet during his four seasons in the NHL, Bylsma didn’t think a suspension should be warranted for his hit.
“I don’t like the fact he got ejected,” Bylsma said. “It’s an unfortunate play. He’s stepping up, and the puck that is coming to Guentzel is stopped by Zemgus. Guentzel’s unsuspecting at that point in time. Rasmus is committed to the hit.”