It's the last first meeting of the season for the Buffalo Sabres as they meet the Columbus Blue Jackets in Nationwide Arena at 7 p.m. Friday. The teams had to wait until March to play each other, but they'll get their fill with back-to-back games this weekend (7 p.m. Saturday in Buffalo) with the rubber match on March 28 back in Columbus.
Here's what you need to know for tonight's matchup:
1. Jack Eichel is hot. The Sabres as a team aren't setting the NHL on fire, but Eichel is. The second-year NHL forward enters the game on a career-best 11-game point streak with five goals and 11 assists over that span. It's the longest active streak in the NHL and the longest by a Sabre since Tim Connolly recorded points in 16 straight games from Dec. 23, 2009 to Jan. 25, 2010. With a point on Friday, he would tie Mikael Granlund’s 12-game streak (Jan. 12 to Feb. 4) for the longest point streak in the NHL this season.
"I’d say just the consistency," Eichel said when asked about the key to his point streak after the team's morning skate Friday in Nationwide Arena. "I think adding a little more grit and compete in your game and getting in corners, getting pucks back, a little more physical. Little stuff like that gives you little more room, opens stuff up. It helps a lot when you’re playing the power play like we have. We’ve been pretty good lately with that. I j just try to come ready to play every night with the same mindset of move your feet, get after the puck, get on the puck and skate. I’m going to do the same thing tonight and see how it goes.
2. It's hard to score on the Blue Jackets, especially at home. Columbus has won its last three games at Nationwide Arena and all three via shut out. Joonas Korpisalo started the trend on Feb. 25, making 24 saves in 7-0 win over the New York Islanders, while NHL All-Star Sergei Bobrovsky made 38 saves in a 1-0 win over Minnesota on March 2 and 33 saves in a 2-0 win against New Jersey on March 7. Bobrovsky has been particularly hot with three straight shutouts himself (including a 3-0 win on March 5 in New Jersey).
"They have, I think, an elite goaltender in net," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said of Bobrovsky. "They’ve been very good at defending and not giving up a lot but we have to get more shots and get more shot total, more volume at this guy tonight and this group if we’re going to come out on the right end of the stick."
3. Columbus is back on a hot streak. After a 16-game win streak earlier this season, the Blue Jackets cooled off in January and early February. But the team is getting back on point for a playoff run, going 7-2-1 in its last 10 games and outscoring opponents, 30-13, in that span. (That's an average score of 3.00 to 1.30). Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets are one win away from tying the franchise record for wins (43 set in 2013-14) and home wins (25 set in 2008-09) in a season.
"This is going to be a big test for us," Bylsma said. "We’re going to be playing a really good hockey team tonight and one that competes at a high level. That’s really the trademark of their team – their compete, their energy and their work. That’s going to be the test for our group tonight."
It's the kind of game that Eichel loves, one where he can pit his speed, and the Sabres' team speed, against the speed-game of their opponent.
"You know this is going to be a good test for us," Eichel said. "They come ready to play every night. They’ve got a lot of offensive power. They can blow you out of the building if you’re not ready to play. It’s going to be a real good, tough test for us tonight. I look forward to it. They’re one of the better teams in the league."
"I like playing teams that want to play hockey. Teams that sit back and trap, those are usually the more boring games but I enjoy it when a team wants to get up and go, doesn’t sit back, comes at you and you can go after them," Eichel said. "Hopefully this is an exciting game tonight."
4. Robin Lehner is searching for a good game. The Sabres goaltender will get his 48th start of the season. In his last six games, Lehner's numbers portray struggles. He's just 1-3-2 with a 4.59 goals against-average while stopping just 85.3 percent of the shots he's faced in that span.
"I think he’s a bit of an indication of how our team is playing," Bylsma said of Lehner. "Last game was no different than some of the struggles we’ve had in third periods, giving up goals. We’ve given up too many shots, we’ve given up more plays at the net, bounces around the net, and those have found their way in the back of the net. Some have been good goals. Some have been bad bounces you could say but as a team we’ve just been giving up too many opportunities in and around our net and Robin’s numbers are a direct reflection of that."
5. Bailey back with O'Reilly. Rookie Justin Bailey had spent time on a line with Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo. He was demoted from that line but brought back to play with O'Reilly and Evander Kane.
"Anytime you get get to play with Ryan, obviously it's an opportunity," Bailey said. "I want to do the most I can to stay there. ... For me I think it's just getting in hard to forecheck, creating space with my speed, pushing D back. I think there were a couple of games where I wasn't at my best when I was with him and that's something I can't do."