The Sabres are coming off their best month of the season. After a brutal loss to end January, it sure doesn’t feel like it.
Here are Five Things to Know as Buffalo kicks off February with a home game against the New York Rangers.
1. Which Sabres team will show up?
Buffalo went 7-5-1 in January, giving the team its first winning record for a month this season. But the final two games were a controversial loss in Dallas and a blowout in Montreal. It had coach Dan Bylsma and fans in a foul mood heading into Thursday’s game.
“It’s definitely been quite the roller coaster,” center Jack Eichel said after the morning skate in KeyBank Center. “We had a good month in January. We win seven games and you look at the Dallas game and say, ‘Hey, it’s a tossup. If that goes to overtime, you really never know.’ We drop one against Montreal, but I think over a span of an 82-game season there’s going to be games where you go out there and you just don’t have it. Obviously, that was one of them in Montreal.
“The best part about the league is we play tonight and we play Saturday. I think everyone will kind of relax if we go out there and take care of business tonight, get back on track, start February right.”
2. Feeling good at home.
The Sabres have won four straight at the foot of Jim Kelley Way, giving them a perfect record in 2017. The last loss on home ice was Dec. 29 against Boston.
“Obviously, you’re a little more comfortable at home,” defenseman Justin Falk said. “We want to come right out of the gate skating today. We got caught maybe a little bit on our heels last game. We got that first game after the break out of the way now.
“If we’re not skating with this team tonight that’s a fast-paced team, then we’re going to be chasing the game. If we can come out skating and dictating the play like we like to do at home, then we should be OK.”
3. Sabres are perfect against the Rangers.
New York holds an Eastern Conference playoff spot with a 31-18-1 record, but the Blueshirts are 0-2 against Buffalo. The Sabres won, 4-3, at home Dec. 1 and earned a 4-1 victory Jan. 3 in Madison Square Garden.
Henrik Lundqvist will start in net for the Rangers. The goaltender is 3-3 in his last six starts versus Buffalo and 17-12-2 in his career.
“They’re a really good team,” Sabres left wing Matt Moulson said. “Both games we did a great job of getting our forecheck going, getting guys to the net. It’s much the same on the power play, getting guys and pucks to the net in front of Lundqvist and getting those dirty goals around the net.”
4. Same goalie, new center.
Goalie Robin Lehner will make his second straight start for the Sabres and skate to the crease for the sixth time in eight games.
Buffalo will have a new look on the fourth line as Nicolas Deslauriers will play center and Cal O’Reilly will be scratched. Deslauriers, who shifted from defenseman to left winger in the minors, has never played center in the NHL.
“He’s been a defenseman in the past, is comfortable down low, comfortable going back for pucks,” Bylsma said. “If you see a D-zone draw that’s not an icing, it will most likely be Jack or Ryan O’Reilly stepping in there and maybe double-shift them and use them in that spot as well.”
5. Later start than usual.
The Sabres and Rangers will play in a nationally televised game on NBCSN, so faceoff isn’t until 7:30 p.m.
Buffalo is starting a stretch of 11 games in 18 days. The Sabres’ bye week (Feb. 20-24) leads into three games in four days, which leads into the NHL trade deadline March 1. General Manager Tim Murray will be watching what the 20-20-9 Sabres can do.
“The 11 games we have, how many points we get and how we climb up the standings is going to be a big indicator as to what happens” at the deadline, Bylsma said. “To a man, we’re all disappointed with the way we played in Montreal and the result of that game and more importantly how we played the game. The challenge for us right now is answering that anger and answering that challenge with how we play tonight.”