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Sabres’ checking trio stymies potent Evgeni Malkin line

BUFFALO – Rather than merely shadowing Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin and his wingers Sunday afternoon, Sabres center Paul Gaustad and his checking line planned to aggressively shut down one of the NHL’s best trios.

Gaustad, Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Kaleta – charged with stopping the NHL’s leading scorer, 30-goal man James Neal and Chris Kunitz – would dictate the play.

“We didn’t want to back off on them. If we backed off, it gives them time,” Gaustad said following the Sabres’ 6-2 win at the First Niagara Center. “We wanted to make sure that we had two forwards going extremely hard, and Patty and Gerbs did that most of the night. They worked hard. That’s how we got our chances.”

Gaustad, on Gerbe’s assist, made it 3-0 2:52 into the second period.

They were only getting started.

At 10:51, Kaleta earned his first NHL penalty shot when a Penguins player threw his stick at him. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stopped him, though. A couple of minutes later, Kaleta and Gerbe roared in on a two-on-one break, but Gerbe railed the puck off the post facing a yawning net.

Meanwhile, Malkin, who scorched the Sabres for five points in an 8-3 win Dec. 17 in Pittsburgh, had just one point, his 71st, an assist on Derek Engelland’s goal. Neal assisted on Jordan Staal’s power-play goal.

“That was our job, and we take pride in our job,” Kaleta said. “We have to do that. I’m up for the task. I’m up for the challenge. It’s fun.”

The trio also kept Montreal’s top line of Erik Cole, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty in check most of Friday’s 4-3 shootout loss.

“The last two games they did a fabulous job,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “They just flat-out outworked the other team’s top line.”

Gaustad’s line, which had help from defensemen Robyn Regehr and Andrej Sekera, wasn’t on the ice for Malkin’s second-period breakaway.

“If I had the Gaustad line out there, that might not have happened,” Ruff said. “Ninety percent of the time I was able to get that matchup.”

They skated a lot, however. Kaleta played 18:47, 10 seconds less than his career high. Gaustad saw 18:14 and Gerbe 15:14.

Gaustad, an unrestricted free agent in July, has quietly become one of the Sabres’ best forwards recently, playing a supreme checking role, scoring and winning faceoffs.

He could be an attractive option for some teams before the February 27th trade deadline.

The 30-year-old acknowledged he had a meeting with general manager Darcy Regier on Saturday, something NBC first reported during its telecast. No possible trade was discussed, Gaustad said.

“I talked to Darcy, but it was mostly about the team, my position and where we’re at right now – as a team and how we’re playing,” he said. “That was pretty much all we talked about. … My focus has always been to be in Buffalo.”

The two sides have discussed an extension.

“That’s up to my agent,” Gaustad said. “We’ve talked a little bit. Again, it was mostly about my performance and stuff like that, not a lot of contract stuff. I don’t really focus on that too much.”

Whatever happens, Gaustad knows he’s going to hear rumors and be asked about getting dealt.

“I understand that, and I think everybody kind of understands that,” he said. “There’s always moving pieces. Again, all I can do is control what I can control, playing hockey.”

When the Sabres came out for pregame warm-ups, they found some “pretty big chunks” of shattered glass, possibly from a house light, in their zone. Some had frozen into the ice.

“It was a little bit weird,” Sabres captain Jason Pominville said. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

The NHL acted quickly, granting the Sabres another five minutes for warm-ups, which they took in the Pittsburgh zone after the Penguins had left the ice.

Many who had skated over the glass needed to have their skates re-sharpened minutes before the game. Several were missing during the national anthems. The game was briefly delayed.

“They wanted to start the game,” Ruff said. “We still had two players in the room getting skates sharpened. I said, ‘We can’t start the game.’”

Sabres goalie Ryan Miller only faced long shots during the warm-ups.

“I didn’t want to take glass in the face from guys sweeping the puck from in close, potentially getting an eye injury from that,” he said.

Miller added: “Maybe we should shorten the warm-up more often.”

Notes: Prior to the game, the Penguins inked Neal to a six-year, $30 million extension. … Gaustad has seven points in the last 10 games. He won 70 percent of his draws Sunday (16 of 23). … Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff’s three assists tied his career high. … Defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani sat for the ninth time in 10 games. The rookie’s been a healthy scratch 15 times this season. Winger Cody McCormick (upper body) missed his fifth game.

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