WINNIPEG – Rather than holding a morning skate at Bell MTS Place on Friday, the Sabres stretched and kicked around a soccer ball in a hallway adjacent to the visitors locker room.
An exhausting schedule of six games in nine days, beginning with tonight's 8 p.m. puck drop against the Winnipeg Jets, led Buffalo coach Phil Housley to make this more of an informal prep for yet another difficult opponent. Make no mistake, though, neither he nor his players expect this test to be any less taxing than the one they experienced at KeyBank Center on Tuesday.
The Jets (11-5-1) are tied for third in the Western Conference with 23 points, only four behind the first-place Nashville Predators, and own the NHL's top power play, led by prolific winger Patrik Laine. A win would give the Sabres their first four-game winning streak since December 2014, and they're currently in a three-way tie with the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders for fifth in the Eastern Conference.
Here are Five Things to Know about tonight's game:
1. Hutton’s net: There won’t be a change in net for at least one more night. Carter Hutton will start against the Jets after another impeccable performance Tuesday night against the Lightning.
Hutton ranks 10th and 12th, respectively, in save percentage and goals against average among goalies with at least 10 starts this season. Linus Ullmark will likely start against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night.
Meanwhile, the Sabres will face a backup goalie for the second time in as many games with Jets coach Paul Maurice turning to Laurent Brossoit, a 25-year-old who spent last season with the Edmonton Oilers. Brossoit allowed two goals on 30 shots in the Oilers' 3-1 loss to the Sabres at KeyBank Center on November 24 last year.
2. Killing penalties: The Sabres’ penalty kill is tied for ninth in the NHL at 81.8 percent and has not allowed a power play goal in 12 opportunities over the past five games. They’ll face their toughest test to date tonight.
The Jets’ power play leads the league at 34 percent, scoring at least once in all but three games this season, including 11 straight. They have five players with at least seven power-play points, including a team-high 13 from Blake Wheeler.
Wheeler, regarded as one of the league's top passers, skates on the top pairing with Laine, who has seven of the team's 16 power-play goals. If called for a penalty, Buffalo's singular focus is preventing Wheeler from finding Laine in space and cutting down passing lanes to others.
"Wheeler can really dish it out," winger Zemgus Girgensons, who trails only defenseman Marco Scandella in penalty kill ice time for Buffalo, said Tuesday. "You have to be really paying attention to what’s going on around you, behind you. He’s always trying to find Laine. If he can’t find him then he’ll try to find someone else. You have to be on your toes at all times."
3. Matchup watch: Housley’s fourth line — Johan Larsson, Girgensons and Tage Thompson — held the Lightning's top line of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Miller to three shots on goal in more than eight minutes Tuesday night.
Keep an eye on how Housley uses his fourth line tonight. He could opt to deploy them against the Jets’ top line of Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Wheeler, or whenever Laine is on the ice. Laine, whose 44 goals since the start of last season rank second behind the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, has been skating on the Jets' third line.
Laine has eight goals and two assists with a team-worst minus-6 rating in 17 games this season. Since the Jets are outstanding in the faceoff circle, ranking tied for fifth at 51.7 percent, Housley will use his third and fourth lines whenever there's a draw in the Sabres' defensive zone since each has two centermen.
"They’ve been terrific, especially Zemgus and Larsson," Housley said of his fourth line. "They’ve done a really great job, even Tage now being in that role — starting in the defensive zone quite a bit. He’s learned how to play without the puck. It’s going to be important moving forward in his development. I just like the trust and the reliability of those guys. Never afraid to put them up against any line."
4. Berglund in, Rodrigues out: With a surplus of healthy forwards, Housley will make another change, inserting Patrik Berglund and scratching Evan Rodrigues. Berglund will play between Vladimir Sobotka and Jason Pominville on the third line, while Larsson, Girgensons and Thompson will remain together.
Wanting more shots on the power play, Housley plans to also use Berglund with a man advantage. Berglund has logged only 2:47 on the power play this season, but he's experienced and isn't afraid to shoot.
"I think (Jeff) Skinner and him can feed off each other," Housley said. "I like his shot capabilities. He’s got a great one-timer, so we’ve got to get back to shooting the puck on the power play."
5. Home Ice Advantage: This is unlike any arena in the NHL. Bell MTS Place seats only 15,231, yet it's one of the most hostile environments for an opposing team. It’s no coincidence the Jets thrive when playing here. They’re 8-2-1 at home this season, and they’re leading the NHL in goals at home for a second consecutive season with 40 in 11 games.
The Jets also had the NHL’s best home record last season at 32-7-2. Meanwhile, the Sabres are 4-4-1 on the road this season.
"The biggest challenge is playing here," Sabres winger Conor Sheary said. "This is a tough place to play and it always has been."