NASHVILLE – Talk about a test. The Buffalo Sabres are in the Music City to face the NHL's top team and there is plenty at stake for the Nashville Predators during tonight's 8 p.m. game in Bridgestone Arena.
On the day of the Final Four, here's one way to think of it: It's not 1-16. It's 1-31. Here are Five Things to Know about the matchup of the NHL' s best team and the NHL's worst:
1. The Predators are seeking history
Nashville (50-16-11) will win the first Central Division title in its history with a win over the Sabres tonight in any fashion – or a Winnipeg loss at Toronto in regulation. The Jets-Maple Leafs game starts an hour earlier, so the Preds may have things wrapped up even before the final buzzer against the Sabres. A 51st win would tie the franchise record.
The Preds were born in 1998 and have six second-place finishes in the division in their history. Oddly enough, they were only fourth with 94 points last year when they made their run to the Stanley Cup final.
Nashville broke its franchise record of 110 points by getting to 111 with Thursday's 4-3 win over San Jose. The Predators enter Saturday with a three-point lead over Tampa Bay and a game in hand in the race for the first Presidents' Trophy in their history.
The Preds can also clinch first in the Western Conference tonight with a win over Buffalo, a regulation loss by Winnipeg and a Vegas loss to San Jose (in any fashion).
2. Game Two for Mittelstadt
Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt is expected to play his second NHL game between Evan Rodrigues and Kyle Okposo. Mittelstadt got an assist Thursday in his debut against Detroit but the Predators, especially on the road, are a major step up in competition.
"They have four of the best D in the league back there so it will be a good test for us and for myself," Mittelstadt said today, referring to Nashville stalwarts P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis. "They all play fast. They're all able to jump in the rush but at the same time they're all very responsible defensively. They do a lot of good things back there."
"It's going to be a great challenge because he's going to be facing some really good centerman," coach Phil Housley said today. "It's part of his growth to experience what really, really good teams do and how they play. It's probably going to be eye-popping for him. I really thought he handled himself well the last game."
3. Another big debut
Another member of the first round of the 2017 draft class gets his first chance at an NHL game tonight. Winger Eeli Tolvanen, taken by the Preds all the way down at No. 30, signed his entry-level deal on Thursday after a smashing season for Jokerit in the KHL and is heading right for the Preds' top line with center Ryan Johansen and fellow wing Viktor Arvidsson.
Tolvanen, 18, collected a hat trick in his KHL debut and finished the season with the most goals (19) and points (36) in league history by an under-19 player. He also represented Finland at the World Junior Championship in Buffalo and the Winter Olympics.
"He's been a guy that's produced his whole life, so we're going to try to put him in positions where he can be successful," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said today.
4. In the nets
With Robin Lehner and Linus Ullmark both on the shelf, Chad Johnson (9-13-3, 3.32/.897) gets the call for the Sabres tonight while just-up-from-Rochester Adam Wilcox will be the backup and dress in a regular season game for the first time.
The Predators have not announced a starting goalie for the game. Backup Juuse Saros (9-5-7, 2.46/.925) played and got the win Thursday night in a 5-3 victory over San Jose so it's likely that starter Pekka Rinne (41-11-4, 2.25/.929) will be in net.
Rinne got his 40th win of the season in the 4-0 shutout of the Sabres March 19 in KeyBank Center and he has owned Buffalo in his career. In five starts against the Sabres, Rinne is 4-1, 0.99/.969 with three shutouts.
5. Ice Chips
The Sabres had an optional morning skate, although most players were on the ice. With some missing, however, the team did not do any line rushes so their lineup will be unveiled at the warmup. ... The Predators are 11-2-2 in March while Buffalo is just 4-8-1. ... The Sabres are 8-4 all-time in Nashville and have won two straight. Their last game here was a 5-4 overtime win on Jan. 26, 2017 via a Jack Eichel overtime goal. ... The Sabres are only 2-9-2 against Central Division foes. ... Nashville has lost 27 games overall this season -- and seven are by shootout, where the Preds are just 6-7. ... Sabres forward Kyle Criscuolo, out since March 5 with a shoulder injury, was sent back to Rochester Saturday morning.