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Sabres vs. Islanders: Five Things to Know

After four days off, the Buffalo Sabres are back on the ice Sunday afternoon for  a 3 p.m. matinee against the New York Islanders in KeyBank Center. The game will be broadcast on MSG with Rick Jeanneret and Rob Ray on the call -- while sitting in the middle of the 300 level as part of Family Appreciation Day Brian Duff is out sick, so Dan Dunleavy will handle the host duties along with analyst Brad May.

It's the start of the final five games of the season for the Sabres over eight days. The teams split two meetings in  December, with each winning at home. Here are Five Things to Know about today's game:

1. No Tavares.  The Sabres already knew Islanders star John Tavares would be out with the hamstring injury he suffered Friday against New Jersey, but Isles coach Doug Weight confirmed this afternoon that Tavares will not play in any of New York's final five games. Tavares has 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists) in 23 career games vs. the Sabres.

"With misfortune brings opportunity," Weight said. "We've got a lot of guys we met with. We need everybody to 'pull on that rope' as they say. That doesn't mean you're doing more but you're doing more smarter. Good teams can handle that for a while. If they play harder, play smarter. If you're playing a team with more skill, you take the percentages, get the puck in and play harder."

Tavares has 28 goals, 38 assists and 66 points in 77 games. He's tied for 22nd in the NHL in scoring but just three points out of the top 15. What will the Islanders miss without him?

"His puck possession and skill and strength," Weight said. "His will. His power play and penalty kill. He's out there every situation, takes big faceoffs and scores. He's the best player. It's no secret. But we've got to move on and we've got to win a game today."

2. Other lineup news: The goaltending matchup will feature Robin Lehner (22-23-8, 2.63/.922) vs. Jaroslav Halak (8-9-5, 3.08/.908). Lehner is 3-1-2, 2.58/.927 against the Islanders in his career. Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Kyle Okposo remains out due to illness and will also miss Monday's game here against Toronto. Bylsma said Okposo is not suffering from the mumps. Sam Reinhart is back from his one-game team suspension for being late to Tuesday morning's stretch in Columbus. Cody Franson will miss his sixth straight game but is ready to go and could play Monday against the Leafs.

3. NHL debuts: The Sabres will have college signee C.J. Smith in the lineup today wearing No. 49 while the Islanders will debut center Connor Jones wearing No. 48 after his recall from Bridgeport. Smith was just signed out of UMass-Lowell on Wednesday.

Smith is expected to start on left wing on a line with Evan Rodrigues at center and captain Brian Gionta on the right.

"In two days of practice, we've had battle situations of 1-on-1s, 2- on-2s and he did quite well against some of our bigger guys," Bylsma said of the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Smith. "It will be something to see. It will be a challenge for him. That's his game. His game is speed, agility, being tenacious on pucks. I think he'll be all right."

Jones, 26, has just five goals and 13 assists in 56 games for Bridgeport, which is in the thick of the AHL playoff battle.

Sabres Notebook: With Okposo still out, Smith will make his NHL debut

4. Return of Risto: With his three-game suspension over, Rasmus Ristolainen returns to the Buffalo lineup on defense. He continues to lead the team with 39 assists this year, and his 24 helpers on the power play are tied for third in the NHL. Ristolainen scored the overtime winner to beat the Islanders here, 3-2, on Dec. 16.

"There's no replacing what Rasmus is to our team and to our lineup, the minutes he plays and the situations he plays in," Bylsma said. "We certainly missed him in the three games that he was out and he'll log a big chunk of minutes for us."

A rested Rasmus Ristolainen ready to return to the Sabres lineup

5. Isles in the playoff race: They're just about toast. At 84 points, New York is six points back of Boston for the final wild-card with a game in hand. But the Isles follow today's game with roadies at Nashville, Carolina and New Jersey before hosting Ottawa in the season finale next Sunday in Brooklyn. They probably have to win all five games and get help to have a chance, and they enter this one just 1-3 in their last four outings and 4-6-1 in their last 11. And those, remember, were all with Tavares in the lineup.

Inside the NHL: Lots of storylines as final week looms


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