By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
PITTSBURGH -- The third period has been good to the Pittsburgh Penguins this season. Until this week.
For the second time in as many games, the Penguins surrendered three goals in the final 20 minutes, resulting in a 5-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres in Game 4 of their NHL Eastern Conference playoff series at Mellon Arena Wednesday night.
The series, tied at 2 wins apiece, shifts back to Buffalo for Game 5 on Saturday. Game 6 will be played at Mellon Arena next Tuesday.
Nothing new: What's bothersome to the Penguins is that this has happened before.
Last year, in the Eastern semifinal series, Pittsburgh stunned the Flyers with two wins in Philadelphia before losing four straight, including three on home ice.
"It's certainly disappointing to win two games over there and then come back here and lose two games, but it's the playoffs," said Penguins center Mario Lemieux, who had zero shots.
"It's happened before," Lemieux added. "We just have to regroup, go over there and do what we did last week."
The Penguins mustered just three shots on Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek in the final period, and one of them was a failed penalty shot.
"We played well," said Hasek, who faced only 17 shots. "I think we deserved to win both games here."
Lemieux offered no explanation for the frustrating final period, other than crediting Buffalo's defense and saying: "It's our own fault -- I think we were out of gas in the third period."
Familiar face: Former Penguin Stu Barnes scored two third-period goals for Buffalo. His first one, a rebound from a Donald Audette shot, broke a 2-2 tie.
"We've been playing so [well] on defense, [but] sooner or later, they are going to get some breaks," said Penguins goalie Johan Hedberg, who made 23 saves.
Halfway through the period, Pittsburgh had a golden opportunity when Sabres defenseman Richard Smehlik pulled down Penguins center Martin Straka on a breakaway.
Straka was awarded a penalty shot, but Hasek denied a low backhander.
"I didn't expect anything," said Hasek of his strategy. "I know Martin -- he has [a] fast release and good hands. I was waiting on his move -- he made it and I made it also."
Moments later, the Sabres' Vladimir Tsyplakov pounced on a rebound and beat Hedberg for a 4-2 lead. Barnes' power-play goal with 1:51 remaining finished the scoring.
"We just got our butts kicked playing a bad style of hockey," Pittsburgh's Andrew Ference said. "They did a lot of things tonight to expose our system breakdowns."
Offensive struggles: Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, who played after sitting out Games 2 and 3 with injuries, were limited to one assist apiece.
"It's playoff hockey -- it's very tight and there's not much time," said Lemieux of the Penguins' stifled offense. "Every time you get the puck, there is someone on you. They play very well as a team. It's tough to play in the playoffs -- it's not a wide-open game."