Despite their inconsistent play, the Buffalo Sabres are already being asked about the Stanley Cup playoffs. That might sound absurd, given there is more than half a season to play; however, it is indicative of how expectations have changed in a matter of months.
The Sabres, 21-12-5 with 47 points, are third in the Atlantic Division and three points ahead of the Boston Bruins, whom they will host tonight in KeyBank Center. Faceoff is at 7 p.m. Eastern on MSG and WGR Radio. One year ago today, Buffalo beat New Jersey in overtime, 4-3, for the team's 10th win of the season.
Naturally, expectations were raised after a 10-game win streak. The Sabres defeated the Bruins, 4-2, in TD Garden on Dec. 16 behind a four-point performance from Jack Eichel.
"These are huge games," Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe said.
Here are five things to know about tonight's game:
1. The lineups: It will be Carter Hutton (13-11-2/2.64/.916) in goal for the Sabres. With Linus Ullmark ill, Scott Wedgewood was recalled from Rochester on Saturday morning to serve as Hutton's backup.
Jason Pominville, who missed the past three games after colliding with Rasmus Ristolainen, will return to the lineup, according to coach Phil Housley. Additionally, defensemen Lawrence Pilut and Matt Hunwick will be healthy scratches with Nathan Beaulieu back in the lineup. Beaulieu has missed the past five games with an upper-body injury. Winger Zemgus Girgensons is out week-to-week with an upper-body injury, which breaks up the Sabres' effective fourth line.
Reminder that #Sabres' lines looked like this in practice Friday:
— Lance Lysowski (@LLysowski) December 29, 2018
Only 12 players were on the ice for an optional morning skate, so it's unclear if Housley will tweak the lines he used during practice Friday. Boston will be without winger Brad Marchand (upper body), defenseman Charlie McAvoy (lower body) and winger David Backes (suspension).
Per Cassidy, here's what we see out there tonight in Buffalo:
Mentioned outside shot of JFK on the wing eventually, too.
— Marisa Ingemi (@Marisa_Ingemi) December 29, 2018
2. Season series almost over: This is the third of four meetings between the two teams, and the season series will end next Saturday when the Sabres play the Bruins in TD Garden. Boston won the first game in the season opener, 4-0, but has since failed to meet expectations because of injuries.
Prior to losing Marchand and McAvoy, the Bruins were finally at full strength when winger Patrice Bergeron, defenseman Zdeno Chara and defenseman Kevan Miller returned from injury. The Sabres are 4-6 in their last 10 games against the Bruins and are 125-122-44 in the all-time series.
"The guys have done a really good job of knowing the situation," Housley said. "Obviously, we know it’s a big game tonight. We’re going to control what we’re going to control, and that’s play. It’s great that we’re in a position that we’re in, playing some really meaningful games at this point in the season. I think the guys will embrace this."
3. On the kill: The Sabres' penalty kill enters the game ranked fifth in the NHL at 83.8 percent and has gone 27 for 28 in their last 10 games. It's the first time Buffalo has allowed one power-play goal or fewer in a 10-game stretch since 2012. Over the past 10 games, the Sabres' goalies have made 34 saves on the penalty kill and the team has killed off 48:07 of power-play time.
They will be without Girgensons, one of their top penalty-killers, after the winger did not practice Friday and did not participate in the morning skate. The Bruins' power play ranks fifth in the NHL and has scored at least once in four of their last five games, but Marchand ranks second on the team with 17 power-play points.
4. Dahlin's debut season: Sabres rookie defenseman Rasmus Dahlin leads all rookie defensemen and ranks third among all rookies with 20 points. With his 20th point in his 37th game on Dec. 22 against Anaheim, Dahlin became the fourth-fastest 18-year-old defenseman in NHL history to reach the 20-point mark, trailing only Housley (28 games), Ray Bourque (30) and Aaron Ekblad (34).
Dahlin's on pace for 43 points this season, which would tie for sixth-most by a rookie defenseman since 2005-06 and would trail only Housley (57 points in 1982-83) for most ever by a defenseman before his 19th birthday.
"If you win or you lose, it’s hockey," Dahlin said. "You can’t go a full season with only winning. If you have a bad game, go back the next game and play better. I think we’ve bounced back from every bad period we’ve had. We’re a strong team. We’re trusting ourselves."
5. By the numbers: The Sabres enter tonight's game with a 12-4-2 record at home, which puts them on pace for the franchise's eighth-best home record and their best since 1982-83 (25-7-8, .725). ... Jeff Skinner ranks second in the NHL in 5-on-5 goal differential (plus-21), trailing only Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. ... Sam Reinhart has 34 points (eight goals with 26 assists) in his last 30 games. ... If he maintains his current pace, Jack Eichel would finish the season tied with Alexander Mogilny (78 in 1992-93) for the second-most even-strength points ever recorded by a Sabres player, trailing only Pat LaFontaine, who had 83 points in 1992-93.