BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins are getting healthier, and it’s showing up on the scoresheet and in the standings.
Two nights after welcoming back defensemen Brian Dumoulin and John Marino from lengthy injuries in a 7-3 win over Ottawa, it was center Nick Bjugstad’s turn to make an immediate impact after missing 46 games recovering from core muscle surgery.
Bjugstad earned the primary assist by driving to the net and bowling over Sabres goalie Jonas Johansson to set up the first of Patric Hornqvist’s two goals in a 4-2 win at Buffalo on Thursday night.
“It’s good to get that first one under my belt and keep continuing to progress,” said Bjugstad, who logged a little over 11 minutes of ice time.
“We’ve had a decent amount of guys injured, and this team’s found ways with our younger guys and call-ups and whatnot, so it’s definitely reassuring,” he added. “But we can’t let our foot off the pedal here. These games are important going forward. I think you want to be confident going into the playoffs.”
The Penguins can finally start peeking ahead to April, now that their injury-riddled lineup is adding reinforcements.
The win over Buffalo was Pittsburgh’s second in a row following a six-game skid, and allowed the Penguins to gain ground in the tightly contested Metropolitan Division standings. With 84 points, Pittsburgh moved five ahead of fourth-place Columbus and within three of Washington and Philadelphia.
“He made some really good plays. My first goal is an example,” Hornqvist said of Bjugstad. “The good thing is he’s only going to get better.”
Sidney Crosby and Marcus Pettersson also scored, and Evgeni Malkin added two assists to follow a four-assist outing against Ottawa.
Matt Murray stopped 28 shots to improve to 3-4-1 in his past eight starts and win consecutive games for the first time since a 6-0 run from Dec. 28 to Feb. 2.
The Sabres followed an 0-4 road trip by continuing to spiral out of contention in losing their fifth-straight in regulation — Buffalo’s longest stretch without a point since an 0-6 ski from Dec. 28, 2015 to Jan. 8, 2016.
Jake McCabe and Marcus Johansson scored for Buffalo, and Jonas Johansson stopped 28 shots.
Sabres captain and leading scorer Jack Eichel was held without a point for a sixth-consecutive game to mark the longest drought of his five-year NHL career. Eichel’s slump coincides with Buffalo having gone six straight without scoring three or more goals.
“It’s fighting up a big hill right now, but more than anything, it’s our offensive production that’s causing us the pain,” first-year coach Ralph Krueger said. “We have to keep creating those chances and look to work for the uglier goals.”
It didn’t help the Sabres to have two goalie interference calls lead to Penguins goals, either.
Hornqvist’s first goal was allowed to stand after the Sabres challenged for goalie interference. The NHL ruled two Sabres defenders caused Bjugstad to crash into Johansson.
“Yeah, I was quite stunned,” Krueger said of the call. “I mean, we reviewed it about six times and they’re claiming that we knocked him in but there was a normal altercation. … But it is what it is and we needed to recover. We did and just didn’t do enough after.”
The Sabres still capitalized with McCabe scoring a short-handed breakaway 65 seconds later, with Buffalo serving a delay of game penalty as a result of the failed challenge.
A goalie interference penalty against Buffalo’s Johan Larsson then led to Hornqvist’s power-play goal to put the Penguins up 3-1 at the 13:32 mark of the second period. Larsson was penalized while appearing to fight for position with Dumoulin while driving to the front of the net, and bowling over Murray.
With the game tied at 1, Pettersson scored the go-ahead goal 12:26 into a game the Penguins never trailed.
Crosby sealed the victory by capping a 2-on-1 break with a backhander 6:02 into the third period, some four minutes after Marcus Johansson scored to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 3-2.
NOTES: Sabres G Linus Ullmark is in position to return as early as this weekend after missing his 17th game with an injury to his lower right leg. … Murray appeared in his 197th career game with Pittsburgh, moving him one ahead of Les Binkley for fifth on the franchise list. … Malkin extended his point streak to 12 games against Buffalo, in which he has six goals and 12 assists for 18 points.
Penguins: Host Washington Capitals on Saturday.
Sabres: At Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday.
For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports