By JOHN WAWROW AP Hockey Writer
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Evan Rodrigues was so focused on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ late-season push to win the East Division title the forward didn’t realize the implications that came with beating his former team, the Buffalo Sabres.
While the Penguins jumped into second in the tightly contested divisional race, their 3-2 win on Saturday also eliminated the Sabres from playoff contention.
“I didn’t know that. I don’t think it was really on anyone’s minds for us,” said Rodrigues, who pumped his arm upon scoring a second-period goal to put the Penguins up 2-0. “We’re just trying to get better as a team so we can be going strong the rest of the season into the playoffs.”
Rodrigues spent his first five-plus seasons in Buffalo before being traded to Pittsburgh a year ago.
Tristan Jarry stopped 23 shots over the final two periods and 28 overall. Bryan Rust and Jared McCann also scored, and the Penguins improved to 10-2-2 in their past 14. Pittsburgh earned its 59th point to move one ahead of the idle New York Islanders, and remain three behind the Washington Capitals.
The New York Rangers’ win in over New Jersey earlier in the day combined with Buffalo’s loss made the Sabres the NHL’s first team eliminated from playoff contention with some three weeks left in the shortened 56-game season. Buffalo matched the league record in extending its playoff drought to a 10th consecutive year.
Having been out of contention for much of the past month, the Sabres focused on how much better they’ve been playing in going 5-3-2 since ending an 18-game winless skid.
“Just a little too late, I guess,” said Casey Mittelstadt, who scored his eighth goal of the season, and seventh in 10 games. “Obviously, there are some things we can build on and take into the next game.”
Tage Thompson also scored for Buffalo. Dustin Tokarski stopped 38 shots in the loss.
The teams complete their two-game series in Buffalo on Sunday.
Rust’s goal stood as the winner, coming on the power play to put the Penguins up 3-1 in the second period. Rust was parked in front of the net and tapped in Sidney Crosby’s pass from the left circle.
The Sabres didn’t back down despite mounting injuries in twice cutting the Penguins’ two-goal lead to one. Thompson briefly cut it to 2-1 earlier in the second period, and 44 seconds after Rodrigues’ goal.
Mittelstadt made it 3-2 by scoring a power-play goal with 8:16 left when he was set up by Rasmus Ristolainen’s pass into the slot.
Buffalo nearly tied the game with 2:21 remaining when Sam Reinhart, parked in front, directed a rebound that dribbled off the right post before Jarry covered it.
Jarry improved to 18-8-3 on the season, and is 6-0-2 since last losing in regulation — a 3-2 defeat to New Jersey on March 18.
“He’s stolen a lot of games for us,” Penguins defenseman Cody Ceci said of Jarry. “We’ve got to try to do a better job at the end of games. But teams are going to push. They’re going to try and win. He’s been great for us in holding us in close games.”
Pittsburgh continued its dominance of Buffalo by improving to 5-0 on the season. It has outscored the Sabres by a combined 20-6. The Penguins also improved to 22-4-3 in their past 29 meetings with the Sabres and 13-0-2 in their past 15 games at Buffalo since a 6-2 loss on Feb. 19, 2012.
BE LIKE SID
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan credited McCann for making a Sidney Crosby-like decision by banking in a shot from behind the goal line off Tokarski to open the scoring 10:30 into the first period.
“He’s watched Sid do it a number of times a year here for a couple of years, and what better example,” Sullivan said. “It may look like happenstance. It may look like it’s a lucky play, but it’s a real calculated play. And it’s a heads-up play to try to take advantage of a goalie when he’s in that situation.”
The teams played in the NHL’s nationally televised first joint Pride Game to promote and celebrate LGBTQ-plus communities.
Both teams participated in pre-game warmups wearing jerseys with rainbow-colored numbers on the back, sticks bearing rainbow-colored tape, and using commemorative pucks with multi-colored designs.
The items are to be auctioned, with proceeds going to the Pride Center of Western New York and GLYS.
The teams donated 100 tickets to LGBTQ-plus organizations, and each fan received a rainbow-colored rally towel. The Buffalo Gay Men’s Chorus performed the Canadian and U.S. anthems.
The Sabres announced before the game that veteran forward Kyle Okposo will miss the remainder of the season after having surgery to repair a broken left cheekbone. Okposo was hurt when being struck by teammate Matt Irwin’s shot in the first period at Washington on Thursday.
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By JOHN WAWROW AP Hockey Writer