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Sabres at Lightning: Five Things to Know

TAMPA, Fla. -- It's Game 81. The Sabres are playing out the string. The Tampa Bay Lightning are not. It's Fan Appreciation Night in Amalie Arena so the atmosphere should be intense, a good test to see how engaged the Sabres remain with the end of their season looming Saturday night at Florida.

Here are Five Things to Know about the Sabres and Bolts:

1. It's a huge game for the Lightning

The scenario is simple: Two games left. Tampa Bay 110 points, Boston 110 points. Top team claims the Atlantic Division title and a first-round matchup with the lowest wild-card (either New Jersey, Philadelphia, Columbus or Florida). Second-place finisher has a much more difficult first-rounder against Toronto.

The Lightning drubbed Boston here Tuesday night, 4-0, and got a big break with the Bruins' regulation loss Thursday at Florida so they will now try to take advantage. Tampa Bay finishes the season Saturday night at Carolina. Boston, meanwhile, hosts Ottawa on Saturday and Florida on Sunday in the makeup of a game snowed out earlier in the season. It's the only game on the schedule Sunday and could decide the fate of multiple teams for the playoffs (the Panthers host the Sabres on Saturday).

"We're just coaching these games to win them," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said today. "It's an 82-game schedule, we've played 80 of them, there's two games left and we're in a position to be able to win the division. It's something we set out to do and Buffalo is in our way of doing that."

Tampa will keep second-leading scorer Steven Stamkos out of the lineup tonight and Saturday with a lower-body injury. Cooper said the goal is to have Stamkos (27-59-86) back on the ice for practice prior to Game One of the playoffs next week.

2. The Sabres are on a streak against the Bolts

Buffalo has won two straight against Tampa Bay, a 5-3 win Feb. 13 in KeyBank Center and a 2-1 overtime win here Feb. 28 on a Jason Pominville goal. The Sabres have not won three in a row against Tampa since taking four straight from Oct. 24, 2009 to March 27, 2010.

This current two-game winning streak broke away from what was by far Buffalo's worst stretch in the all-time series -- a 1-11-1 struggle against Tampa that stretched from Dec. 4, 2014 to this season's first meeting, a 2-0 loss in Buffalo on Nov. 28, 2017.

"We've come out and really attacked the game and played well defensively," coach Phil Housley said today. "We know this is a terrific rush team that can score goals. Their back end can get involved so we have to stay on top of people because if we don't manage that area, they attack. They're very good in the offensive zone in their cycle game but overall we've done a good job defensively."

3. In the nets

It will be Chad Johnson (10-15-3, 3.40/.895) for the Sabres against Tampa Bay starter Andrei Vasilevskiy (43-17-3, 2.58/.921). Linus Ullmark is on the trip and took the morning skate today. Housley said the Sabres will see how he reacts after the workout to determine if he sees any action Saturday night.

4. The Sabres' lineup

Benoit Pouliot, Kevin Porter and Josh Gorges will be scratches for the Sabres tonight. Buffalo tinkered with the defense pairs during the morning skate, putting Brendan Guhle with Rasmus Ristolainen and Casey Nelson with Marco Scandella. There were some changes on the forward lines as well, with Scott Wilson moving to play with Jack Eichel.

5. By the numbers

The Lightning are 28-10-3 at home but just 3-4 in their last seven games here. Tampa Bay has 138 goals at home (3.45 per game) and is one shy of its franchise record set three years ago. … Sabres winger Sam Reinhart has 36 points in his last 36 games (17-19). Reinhart has 41 points since Jan. 1 and is tied for 13th in the NHL in scoring in the new year. … With two games left, Ryan O’Reilly is 30 faceoff wins shy of breaking the NHL record of 1,268 in a season set in 2005-06 by Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour.

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