Pens Bolster Offense with Ponikarovsky

It was fitting that the Penguins’ first post-Olympic matchup came against the Buffalo Sabres Tuesday at Mellon Arena. Pittsburgh’s captain, of course, clinched the gold medal for Canada with a dramatic overtime game winner, while Buffalo’s tournament-MVP goaltender was the man who was beaten for that goal while wearing USA red, white and blue.

Alas, a rematch of Sidney Crosby versus Ryan Miller wasn’t in the cards. With a home game the following day, the Sabres elected to give their starting goalie an extra day of rest and started former Pittsburgh netminder Patrick Lalime instead.

Before the puck dropped, however, the Penguins organization took the opportunity to honor all of the Oympians from both teams. Standing in the Buffalo runway, Miller got the loudest ovation from the pro-USA crowd.

As for the hometown kid? The Pittsburgh faithful booed their captain – mostly in good nature – during a Jumbotron replay of his overtime heroics on behalf of Team Canada. But the boos quickly turned to cheers when the public address announcer introduced Crosby as a gold medal winner.

The Penguins went on to beat the Sabres 3-2, in an effort that saw them getting back to the style of game they want to play down the stretch.

“There were a lot of facets of our game that I thought were much more like our team game than we’ve seen consistently,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “There were periods of hockey where we got to the offensive zone and kept their D on the ice and tired them out.

“Even in the third [period], in the neutral zone, the way we played, we created turnovers with good position, and then they turned into offensive situations. It wasn’t perfect, [we played] a good team, but I was really pleased in a lot of areas. It’s definitely something to build on.”

About midway through the game, however, the Olympic recognition and solid team effort began to take a backseat to the buzz circulating throughout Mellon Arena that the Penguins had swung a major deal on the eve of the NHL’s trade deadline.

Although it wouldn’t be confirmed until well after the game’s conclusion, Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero had made a move to bolster his team’s offense, adding 6-foot-4, 229-pound left winger Alexei Ponikarovsky from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for top prospect Luca Caputi and depth defenseman Martin Skoula (On Wednesday, the Leafs flipped Skoula – whose salary had to come off the Penguins’ books for them to afford Ponikarovsky’s prorated cap hit – to the New Jersey Devils.).

The Ukranian native Ponikarovsky had 19 goals and 41 points for Toronto this season; on the Penguins, those numbers make him the third-leading scorer behind Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He’s expected to play on Malkin’s wing when he joins the Penguins, which the team hopes will be in time for back-to-back home matinees this weekend.

Ponikarovsky, who has become a Canadian citizen, first needs to acquire an American work visa.

“He’s very excited to come here,” said Ruslan Fedotenko, who spoke to Ponikarovsky briefly after the trade. The two grew up in the same hometown, one year apart, and Fedotenko is expected to man the other wing on that line. “He cannot wait, he wants to be here today, but he’s still waiting for the phone call about immigration.

“He’s a big kid, really strong on his skates, drives to the net hard, good hands, scores goals. I feel like it will open up a little more ice in front of the net. We’ll just need the chemistry, to learn how each other plays, and he’ll need to adjust to our system, and we’ll go from there.”

Heading into the trade deadline, the Penguins were believed to be shopping for a solid blueliner and a scoring winger.

With the additions of Ponikarovsky and defenseman Jordan Leopold – who looked strong in his first game with Pittsburgh Tuesday, registering more than 18 minutes of ice time, four blocked shots and significant work on the penalty kill – the Penguins appear to have fulfilled their wish list for the stretch run.

“We’re adding a top-four defenseman, we’re adding a top-six forward, and we’re trying to put the best team out there on the ice so that we can win,” Bylsma said. “We won a Cup last year, but I think this is a message saying that we’re not content.

“We think we can win with this team, and we think we can add a piece or two to the puzzle and make this a better team, a better situation, a better chance to play our game and play in the playoffs that way. That’s a great message to send.”

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