Penguins race for first place in East in finale vs. Sabres

It will be the final regular-season game for both clubs Saturday afternoon when the Pittsburgh Penguins host the Buffalo Sabres.

For Pittsburgh, the stakes are high.

The Penguins (36-16-3, 75 points) are in a chase for first place or at least home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs in the East Division, where the top four spots are tighter than a lot of people’s belts coming out of COVID-19 quarantine.

Even the Sabres (15-33-7, 37 points), in last place in the division, realize the pressure that’s on the Penguins.

“There’s stuff for them to play for, with a lot on the line,” Buffalo interim coach Don Granato said.

Pittsburgh won’t know where it will finish in the standings or whom it will face in the first round until other teams in the East play games in the next few days that have to be made up after postponements.

The most the Penguins can do is make sure they come away with two points Saturday — which would mean finishing with nine wins over their final 11 games, including Thursday’s 8-4 win over Buffalo.

Well, that and do a little prep work for the postseason.

“I think we have to focus on our game and playing the right way, make sure that we go into the playoffs feeling good about ourselves … defensively and offensively,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said.

“We have one more, and we have to put our focus on doing things right and getting prepared for the playoffs.”

The Sabres, meanwhile, are down to their last game.

“We saw our youth and some inexperience because we thought we would be OK,” Granato said of Thursday’s game. “I like our confidence … but we didn’t know what we should respect. You use the (phrase) puck management, but we’re playing against a team that when they’re going the right way they can score and score quick.

“We get another opportunity to look at the film, look in the mirror. That will be the challenge.”

The Sabres would argue against the idea they have nothing to play for Saturday beyond pride and perhaps future player contracts.

They feel an obligation to be better in front of rookie goaltender Michael Houser.

Houser, 28, has been one of the feel-good stories of the past week. Injuries have given him a shot to make his NHL debut and start the past three games after he bounced around the minor leagues for years. Granato said Linus Ullmark, the only injured goalie who had a shot to play before the season ends, is unlikely to be ready Saturday.

Houser faced 34 shots Thursday — many high-quality — and his teammates said they bore some responsibility for the eight goals allowed.

“We didn’t help him out at all,” Buffalo winger Jeff Skinner said.

Houser won his first two starts, upsets over the New York Islanders, and now gets to play in front of family and friends. He grew up and played youth hockey in suburban Pittsburgh.

“He deserves better,” center Drake Caggiula said. “We owe him.”