PITTSBURGH (AP) - After playing four consecutive overtime games and having eight of their previous nine decided by one goal, the Pittsburgh Penguins found an opponent they've made a habit of defeating a little bit more easily.
James Neal and Zbynek Michalek each scored for the first time as members of the Penguins with goals 3:17 apart early in the second period and Pittsburgh continued its recent mastery of the Buffalo Sabres with a 3-1 win Tuesday night.
Pittsburgh swept the season series with the Sabres in winning their sixth consecutive game against them. The Penguins also won in regulation for the first time since Feb. 4 against - you guessed it - the Sabres.
``We were all very, very happy to get that third goal,' Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanan said. ``We could finally somewhat take kind of a deep breath and relax a little bit.'
Mark Letestu scored that insurance goal with 5:54 to play as the Penguins came back from a first-period deficit and took the lead for good during the second for the second time in a little more than a month against the Sabres.
Marc-Andre Fleury made 29 saves to improve to 4-0 with a 1.25 goals-against average against Buffalo this season.
``He's made big saves when he has needed to make them,' Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. ``Even last game when we got up, he shut it down. He's quietly put together - I don't even think quietly - a nice season.'
Rob Niedermayer scored for the second straight game for Buffalo, which lost in regulation for the first time in eight games since Terry Pegula became the team's owner.
The Penguins remained two points behind the Philadelphia Flyers in the race for the Eastern Conference's best record.
Neal's goal was his first in seven games since being acquired from Dallas, and Michalek scored for the first time in 59 games this season. Each also had an assist.
``Both of those guys were pretty relieved and had pretty big smiles on their faces,' Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
Eighty-five seconds into the second period, Neal scored for only the second time in 18 games dating to his time with Dallas. Neal redirected a pass from Deryk Engelland while standing just to the left side of Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, the puck deflecting off of Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold and into the far side of the net for Neal's 22nd of the season.
``Those are the kind of goals that can get you out of a slump,' Neal said. ``It was a little bit luck, but it was nice to see it finally go into the net.'
Michalek's goal came on a slap shot from the right point that found its way through traffic, appeared to deflect off a Buffalo player and ended up beating Miller high to the glove side.
``I didn't even see the puck go in with so many people in front of me,' Michael said. ``When the crowd reacted, I wasn't even sure if it was mine or not. Then, I saw everybody skating toward me and figured it was.
``It's just a big relief. I'm so happy to finally get the first one.'
It was Michalek's first goal since Jan. 14, 2010 - a span of 92 games - and it at first appeared as if he added another late when he took a wrist shot from above the right circle. But Letestu was able to get a piece of the shot with his stick, getting it past Miller. It was his 12th of the season.
The Sabres fell to 3-1-1 during their franchise record-tying seven-game roadtrip and lost on the road in regulation for the first time since the Feb. 4 game in Pittsburgh.
Buffalo remained a point ahead of idle Carolina in the race for the final playoff spot.
``Every team is desperate for wins right now and we know we're going to be in a battle every game down the stretch,' Niedermayer said.
After going 67 games between goals, Niedermayer scored for the second consecutive game just 2:47 into the contest, taking it to the net after beating Paul Martin down the right wing and depositing a shot between the legs of Fleury.
Sabres leading scorer Thomas Vanek was scratched due to the flu, and Buffalo also was without injured forwards Mike Grier and Jochen Hecht.
The Penguins welcomed back winger Chris Kunitz after he had missed the previous 13 games with an unspecified injury.
Notes: Pittsburgh went 0 for 6 on the power play. ... The Sabres entered a game while holding down a playoff spot for the first time since the first week of the season but fell to 17-8-4 since Jan. 1. ... Pittsburgh had played four straight overtime games heading into the contest and would have tied a franchise record had this game gone past regulation. ... The game was the Penguins' 199th consecutive home sellout.
The Associated Press News Service
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