Sabres vs. Penguins Preview

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PITTSBURGH, PA (AP) - The Pittsburgh Penguins have thrived off stellar goaltending during the extended absences of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to remain in the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

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The Buffalo Sabres hope to continue a recent surge toward earning a playoff spot of their own.

Malkin returns to the ice after missing five games with a sinus infection as Pittsburgh looks for its fifth straight victory Friday night against visiting Buffalo, winner of four of five.

According to NHL odds and oddsmakers from online sports book SBGGlobal.com have made the Penguins -145 money line favorites for Friday's game against the Sabres. Current NHL Public Betting Information shows that 50X% of more than 57 bets for this game have been placed on the Penguins -145.

Coach Dan Bylsma ruled Crosby out for the 12th straight game with a concussion, but Malkin practiced Thursday and will play. Crosby hasn't played since Jan. 5, and he led the NHL in goals and points at the time of his injury.

The league also rescinded a one-game suspension given to Jordan Staal for a gloved punch on the New York Rangers' Brandon Prust, and he'll be in the lineup against Buffalo.

"Evgeni Malkin will be playing (Friday)," Bylsma told the team's official website. "Sidney Crosby is going out of town for a few days to visit his parents. He continues his functional rehab and light exercises."

The Penguins (33-15-4) haven't seemed to mind the lost production, going 7-3-1 without Crosby and 4-1-0 without Malkin. They're giving up 1.91 goals per game over the last 11, which is tied for second-best in the league during that stretch.

Backup Brent Johnson made 20 saves in Wednesday's 3-0 win against the New York Islanders, but he lost his bid for his 15th career shutout when he was ejected for fighting with opposing goaltender Rick DiPietro with 16.5 seconds remaining.

Marc-Andre Fleury's play has also been a major reason for Pittsburgh's recent success, as he's 6-0-0 with a 1.64 goals-against average in his last six starts. Fleury is 6-1-0 with a 2.26 GAA in his last seven against the Sabres, including two victories and a shutout this season.

Buffalo (23-21-5) has lost five of its last six trips to Pittsburgh but enters Friday's matchup looking for its fifth win in six games after a 3-2 overtime victory Jan. 25 in Ottawa. The Sabres, playing their first game since the All-Star break, are 9-3-1 in their last 13 and in 10th place in the East.

Leading scorer Thomas Vanek had two assists against the Senators and has registered two points in five of his last seven.

"It's huge for us to be in the hunt going into the break," said Shaone Morrisonn, whose goal in overtime was his first since Jan. 27, 2009.

Ryan Miller made 27 saves and headed into the break on a 4-0-0 stretch with a 2.37 GAA. However, he's 2-6-2 with a 3.62 GAA in his last 11 appearances against the Penguins, giving up at least three goals in the last nine.

Pittsburgh beat Buffalo 1-0 on Nov. 24 and 5-2 on Dec. 11. Prior to the matchup in December, eight straight meetings were decided by one goal with the Penguins winning five of them.

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