Carter scores career-high 4 goals as Penguins blast Sabres

In the final days of a 16th season that came in the form of a 56-game sprint and included a cross-country trade, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jeff Carter acknowledges his legs aren’t exactly in top form.

Funny, they sure looked fresh Thursday night against Buffalo, when the 36-year-old did something for the first time since, well, even he can’t remember.

Carter collected the first four-goal game of his career in an 8-4 victory over the Sabres, netting three in the first 25 minutes then finishing it off with a pretty backhander in the third period as the Penguins moved back into first place in the crowded East Division.

“I don’t know what happened out there, to be honest with you,” Carter said. “The puck was following me all night.”

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And then finding its way to the net. Carter’s four-goal night gave him eight in 13 games since joining the Penguins last month, matching the total he had in 40 games with Los Angeles before being shipped east at the trade deadline.

The two-time Stanley Cup champion adds depth and a veteran presence in the bottom six. Perhaps just as importantly, his “shoot first” mentality is something the Penguins — who can sometimes frustrate coach Mike Sullivan by searching for the pretty play instead of the prudent — desperately need.

“He’s a guy with a lot of speed, really intelligent with the puck and he’s got the IQ to find the areas on the ice to score goals,” Pittsburgh defenceman Kris Letang said. “It’s good to have him on our side.”

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The four-goal performance was the first by a Penguin since Chris Kunitz did it in a win over Washington on Feb. 3, 2013.

Jared McCann had a goal and two assists for Pittsburgh. Brian Dumoulin, Sidney Crosby and Kasperi Kapanen also scored for the Penguins.

Tristan Jarry overcame a sloppy start to finish with 19 saves as Pittsburgh moved two points ahead of Washington for the top spot in the East. The Capitals, however, have three games remaining. The Penguins have just one, their regular-season finale on Saturday against the Sabres.

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Pittsburgh would at least like to finish with the second seed, assuring itself of home-ice in the opening round. The Penguins have been dominant at PPG Paints Arena this season. Pittsburgh’s 21 home victories are tied with Tampa Bay for tops in the league.

Shaky homecoming

Drake Caggiula scored twice for Buffalo, but goaltender Michael Houser’s homecoming ended with a loss to the team he rooted for while growing up in the northern Pittsburgh suburbs.

The 28-year-old spent nearly a decade before bouncing around the minors before finally reaching the NHL earlier this week. He dazzled in a pair of wins over the New York Islanders to earn a third consecutive start. Playing in front of more than 20 friends and family, Houser stopped 26 shots but couldn’t keep the NHL’s highest-scoring team under wraps.

“We owe (Houser) big time,” Caggiula said. “Last couple games, he’s been a stone wall back there for us. It’s been a lot of fun playing for him. We kind of laid an egg tonight.”

Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner also scored for Buffalo, but the Sabres — who began the season hoping to end a nine-year playoff drought — assured themselves of finishing with the worst record in the 30-team NHL for the fourth time since 2013-14.

Playoff ready?

The Penguins, by contrast, have the longest active playoff streak (15 years) in major North American professional sports. Yet just reaching the post-season isn’t enough, one of the reasons they brought in Carter last month.

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Carter has wasted little time developing chemistry with McCann and the two certainly looked comfortable with each other as McCann slid a cross-ice pass to Carter that Carter zipped into the net 9:57 into the first to tie the score. Carter needed less than two minutes to put the Penguins in front, taking a nice drop pass from Jason Zucker for a power-play goal. He completed a natural hat trick with a rebound by Houser 4:36 into the second.

The Sabres kept pace for a little while. Caggiula’s second of the game tied it at 3 just 37 seconds after Zucker’s third but the Penguins simply kept coming.

Pittsburgh then reeled off four straight — including Carter’s backhand flip — to take control. Asked by Sullivan in the dressing room afterward if he could ever remember scoring four goals in a game, Carter shook his head.

“I’ve had a few hat tricks before,” Carter said. “When you get three, you hopefully get four. But I had quite a bit of time left after the third one. So I was definitely pushing for it for sure.”

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