TAMPA, Fla. – Jon Cooper knows first-hand the dilemma of meeting the Buffalo Sabres. In a year where the Blue & Gold have locked up 31st place in the NHL's overall standing, the Sabres have beaten Cooper's Tampa Bay Lightning twice.
The Sabres, in fact, entered Friday's game against the Lightning in Amalie Arena with seven wins over Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto, the three teams atop the Atlantic Division.
Cooper said the Sabres had the expected struggles of a new coach (Phil Housley) and new general manager (Jason Botterill), which certainly led to a 6-17-4 start and just 11 wins in their first 46 games (11-26-9). The Sabres entered Friday's game 14-17-3 in their last 34 games – including 9-4-1 in their last 14 on the road.
"They've improved dramatically through the year and that's a good sign for them," Cooper said. "They've got some good players. I had an up-close look at Ryan O'Reilly at the World Championships (for Team Canada) and he's a big-time player. Jack Eichel goes down for how many games? That doesn't help.
"A lot of things worked against Buffalo but Phil kept them together. Instead of folding down the stretch, they dug their heels in and played teams tough, including us. As an organization, they've found out a lot about themselves, they've done it the right way and they're set up to do some good things next year."
The top Sabre in the second half has been winger Sam Reinhart, who entered Friday's game with 36 points in his last 36 games dating to Jan. 18. Reinhart had 19 goals since scoring in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 in New York, and entered Friday tied for 13th in the NHL in goals in that span.
The Lightning won a Stanley Cup in 2004 and got within two games in 2015. They've had at least 90 points 10 times in their 25 seasons and this is the fifth time they've eclipsed 100 points. Strangely enough, what they don't have much of are division titles.
The Bolts have won a division just twice in their history, those coming back-to-back in 2003 and 2004 when they won the Southeast. They have never won the Atlantic Division and are at 14 years and counting to winning any division. They entered Friday night with a franchise-record 110 points, tied with Boston for the top slot in the Atlantic Division
The Lightning drubbed Boston here Tuesday night, 4-0, and got a big break with the Bruins' regulation loss Thursday at Florida. 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.
The Sabres headed to Sunrise immediately after the game and will play the Panthers in their season finale Saturday night at 7 in BB&T Center (MSG, Radio 550). The Panthers are hanging on in the race for the final wild-card berth and could be eliminated if Philadelphia gets a point in its finale earlier in the day against the New York Rangers.
But a Flyers loss could open the door for the Panthers if they beat the Sabres and win Sunday's finale at Boston. It also opens the scenario of an unprecedented 83rd game to decide the final berth.
If the Flyers lose to the Rangers by two goals and the Panthers win both of their games by shootout, every tiebreaker would be even. In order, those would be points, regulation plus overtime wins, points in the season series (excluding the first home game for the team that has the extra game) and goal differential for the season.
In that case, the league announced Friday it will determine home-ice advantage by lottery Sunday night between the Panthers and Flyers and the teams would play the tiebreaker at the chosen site on Tuesday. If that game finishes tied, it will be decided by playoff-style overtime (5-on-5, 20-minute periods)
Frolunda of the Swedish League has announced that Sabres draft pick Victor Olofsson is leaving the team after the season to "represent other clubs in other leagues." Olofsson, a 22-year-old right winger, was the Sabres' seventh-round pick in 2014 and the team is interested in signing him to play in Rochester next season.
Olofsson had a team-high 27 goals and 16 assists in 50 games this year while playing on the club that also featured presumptive No. 1 draft pick Rasmus Dahlin as well as former Sabres defensemen Mike Weber and Adam Pardy.
Olofsson and Rasmus Asplund are playing for Sweden this weekend against Slovakia in Euro Hockey Challenge games, a prep for next month's World Championships in Denamrk.
Rochester Amerks defenseman Zach Redmond has been named to the 2017-18 AHL Second All-Star Team. Redmond, 29, set career highs with 31 assists and a team-high 46 points, fourth among AHL blueliners.
Redmond is also tied for second in goals by a defenseman with 15, three shy of the Rochester franchise record. That includes a team-high eight power-play goals.
Former Sabres forward Phil Varone of Lehigh Valley was named to the first team. Ex-Buffalo defenseman T.J. Brennan of Lehigh Valley joined Redmond on the second team.