BUFFALO – It may not be how the Pittsburgh Penguins drew it up at the start of the season, but they’re headed back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Penguins clinched a berth into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference with a 2-0 win against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center on Saturday.
Brandon Sutter scored two goals and Marc-Andre Fleury made 28 saves for the Penguins (43-27-12), who ended a five-game losing streak. Pittsburgh will face the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference First Round.
"We know them well, they know us well, so there shouldn’t be any surprises there," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "It should be a pretty intense, physical series but like I said hopefully we can kind of ride this momentum a bit here, getting this big win and continue it into the playoffs."
Fleury’s shutout was his League-leading 10th and his 38th in the NHL. He made 10 saves in the first period to help the Penguins hold off the Buffalo attack.
"It was a tough grind these past two weeks," Fleury said. "So we felt like we couldn't be out of the playoffs. We couldn't miss it. It was a good battle and definitely a nice feeling to get it tonight."
It is the ninth consecutive season the Penguins have made the playoffs and the first time under coach Mike Johnston.
"This is the first time [we clinched this late in the season]. It doesn’t matter how you get in, you’ve just got to find a way to get in there," Crosby said. "You’re going to play good teams once you’re in there anyway. I think, like I said, it’s good to be relieved and obviously we’re happy to be there now. We’ve got to raise our level of play and now find a way to keep playing."
The Penguins matchup against the Rangers was set after the Ottawa Senators defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 3-1 and the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 2-0. The Penguins win eliminated the Boston Bruins from playoff contention.
"This team has been a frontrunner," Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "Regular seasons have almost come easy for the Penguins. I have never come down to the final stretch. I've always gone wire to wire, whether it was in Wilkes-Barre or my first time in Pittsburgh. My time in Anaheim, it was always fighting for the top spot rather than the eighth spot.
"It is an absolute relief. Hopefully, we're just getting started."
Sutter gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead with 5:37 left in the second period. Sutter received a pass from Blake Comeau and carried the puck on the backhand from behind the Sabres net around the defense and took a backhand shot past Sabres goalie Anders Lindback.
"I think when you finally clinch there’s that bit of relief, for sure, just knowing you’re going to be there and it came right down to the wire for us," Sutter said. "A bit of a relief and just excitement and not we can focus on going on forward."
Sutter’s second goal of the game came 8:26 into the third period when he received a pass from Daniel Winnik on a 2-on-1 against Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian in front of the Sabres net. Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist set the play up when he intercepted the puck near the blue line and passed to Winnik, who passed to Sutter for his 21st goal.
"The one thing I was really excited about tonight was I felt our game was good," Johnston said. "We talked about it before the game that we’ve had two great periods the last four games and we only came away with one point. And in this game here, I just thought from start to finish our third period was good."
Sutter has scored 20 or more goals in the NHL for the second time in his career and the first since his rookie season in 2009-2010 with the Hurricanes when he scored 21.
"It’s good, it’s always nice to score goals," Sutter said. "The win was important tonight, but anytime you can contribute it always feels good and I’ll try to take that confidence into the postseason."
The Sabres held Crosby without a point for the first time since April 3, 2007, a span of 19 games. Crosby ended the season with 84 points and finished three points behind Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars for the Art Ross Trophy.
The Sabres (23-51-8) ended the season with their second consecutive loss and the worst record in the NHL for the second straight season.
"This is a real good group of guys," Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. "You don’t have to be the most skilled or the best players in the world to be a professional team or act like a champion. These guys are a good group, they played hard. That was one of the things I mentioned before the game, play hard for the fans."