In a turnaround season, one thing the Buffalo Sabres have yet to solve is the riddle of the Florida Panthers.
The Panthers hit town last in the Atlantic Division – but they've won six straight games against the Sabres and will go for No. 7 tonight at 7 in KeyBank Center.
Buffalo (20-9-5) is coming off its three-point weekend that featured a shootout loss in Washington followed by Sunday's 4-2 win in Boston. The Panthers are also on a high, snapping an 0-3-1 run with Saturday's 4-3 overtime win against Toronto. Aleksander Barkov, who defeated the Sabres with an OT goal on Nov. 30, also beat the Maple Leafs by becoming the first player in Florida's 25-year history to complete a hat trick with a goal in extra time.
Here are Five Things to Know about tonight's game:
1. The lineups: The goaltending matchup will be Carter Hutton (13-8-2, 2.54/.919) against Roberto Luongo (6-5-1, 3.02/.904). Both guys have been stellar against the opposition, with Hutton 2-0, 1.22/.957 against the Panthers and Luongo 19-8, 1.95/.934 against Buffalo.
The Sabres have switched the centers on their middle two lines, with Casey Mittelstadt rejoining Evan Rodrigues and Jason Pominville in a combination from his six-game stint at the end of last season and Vladimir Sobotka now moving between Conor Sheary and Kyle Okposo.
"We played well together last year and you want to find some of that chemistry again," Mittelstadt said after today's morning skate. "There hasn't been enough support scoring for the first line so you have to change something. We'll try to make some plays with each other and we compliment each other well."
#Sabres lines during the morning skate:
No Ullmark or Beaulieu
— Lance Lysowski (@LLysowski) December 18, 2018
2. The streak: The Panthers' six-game run is their longest against Buffalo since they entered the NHL in 1993. The Sabres are 0-5-1 in the streak, with four of the games in Sunrise, and have been outscored, 22-9. They are just 5-14-3 against the Panthers since the start of the 2013-14 season.
"They're a very desperate team right now," coach Phil Housley said of the Panthers. "They understand time is not on their side and we have to plan accordingly."
Panthers coach Bob Boughner, the former Sabres defenseman, is wary that Buffalo is going to say enough is enough tonight.
"We remember when we don't have success against teams," said Boughner. "You're always more prepared and want to come out and make a statement. We have to make sure we're ready, get that compete back up just like against Toronto and play a smart road game, especially the first 10 minutes."
3. Offensive firepower: Sabres center Jack Eichel is tied with Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau for sixth in the league in scoring at 45 points and is tied for the league lead with 17 multipoint games. Sam Reinhart is on a career-high 10-game point streak (5-11-16). Eichel (9-4-13) and Jeff Skinner (4-3-7) are both on six-game runs.
On the other side, Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau is second in the NHL in scoring since Nov. 24 with 21 points, including 16 assists (Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele has 23). He leads the Panthers with 38 points while Barkov and Mike Hoffman have 31 apiece.
"They have a lot of firepower," said Sabres center Johan Larsson. "You have to be aware of when they're out there. It's a pretty skilled team that causes problems. When they have room, they're going to make plays, so we have to do a better job of being on top of them all over the ice."
4. Special teams battle: It almost always tells a key tale and things will be especially interesting tonight when Florida is on the power play. The Panthers are fourth overall in the NHL at 27.5 percent and third on the road at 29.6. But the Sabres' penalty kill has been stellar of late, pushing to sixth in the league both overall (83.0) and home (87.5) and is now benefiting from the return of defenseman Marco Scandella. Buffalo has killed off 18 straight penalties, dating to Dec. 3 in Nashville, and is 17 for 17 over the last six games. If the Sabres' PK unit goes perfect again tonight, it will be its first seven-game run since Oct. 24-Nov. 7, 2015.
5. Numbers games: The Sabres lead the NHL in overtime/shootout wins (8) and games that go past 60 minutes (13). ... The Panthers are outscoring opponents, 30-23, in the first period but are an NHL-worst minus-19 in the third period (42-23) even though they've only been outshot, 320-311. Luongo and backup James Reimer are combining for a paltry .869 save percentage in the final 20 minutes of regulation. ... Neither team has a short-handed goal, joining St. Louis and Boston as the only teams in the league without one.