Auld acquaintance will not be forgot tonight as the Sabres meet the New York Islanders in KeyBank Center — with former Buffalo goaltender Robin Lehner in the net for the visitors.
The New Year's Eve game has a special 6:05 faceoff and will air as normal on MSG and WGR Radio. The Sabres, who are just 4-6-4 in their last 14 games, will be trying to shake off the disappointment of Saturday's 3-2 overtime loss to Boston.
Here are five things to know about tonight's game:
1. Lineup questions: Coach Phil Housley answered some questions about his lineup this morning and was evasive on others. The recap: Jack Eichel was one of a handful of players who skated but is a game-time decision after skipping practice Sunday for a maintenance day. C.J. Smith, up from Rochester, will be in the lineup, but Housley wouldn't say where or who he would replace. The defense will remain unchanged, so Lawrence Pilut will be a scratch.
2. An old friend returns: Lehner, the Sabres' No. 1 goaltender the last three years, will be in net for the Islanders tonight against Carter Hutton and he's been red-hot of late. Lehner has won his last four decisions — including a 36-save shutout Saturday in Toronto — for the first time since he was in Ottawa in 2014, while allowing just two goals in that span and piling up an 0.56 goals-against average and .981 save percentage. Lehner is looking forward to meeting the Sabres.
"I've been following the club and I'm very happy how well they're doing," Lehner said after today's morning skate. "It's well deserved. There's a lot of good people in that locker room that deserve success. I think there's a lot of talent, a lot of skill in there, obviously a lot of good additions. I wish them the best and I hope they keep going."
Lehner, who revealed in September his struggles here with alcohol addiction and bipolar disorder, said he's not thinking much about what kind of reaction he'll get from Buffalo fans. He was, of course, a lightning rod for criticism last year as the Sabres sank to last place in the NHL — although the paying customers obviously had no idea about the personal demons he was enduring.
"There were a lot of good things that came out of this city for me," Lehner said. "I also had a lot of hard times here personally. Hockey-related, you can't ask for better fans. It didn't matter how we were playing or struggling, there was always support here. There was always almost a filled rink every night. Can't ask more from the fans in this city. You really can't. They deserve the success that's happening this year."
From the archives: I had a 1-on-1 chat with Robin Lehner in September prior to the preseason finale and he was hopeful things would go well with #Isles. At 2.21 and .926, you can say they have. #Sabres https://t.co/fcUYmkfD2F
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) December 31, 2018
3. A big game in the standings: The Sabres have to stop looking ahead, where they are six points behind Toronto in the Atlantic Division, and pay more heed to looking back. The Islanders are on a 7-2-1 run and suddenly just four points behind Buffalo in the playoff race.
"We've put ourselves in a good position and we've raised our standard," Housley said. "Now we know we've got to get to another level because it's going to be tight and we have to be comfortable in those situations."
4. A big game in the history books: New York coach Barry Trotz, in his first year on Long Island after leading Washington the Stanley Cup in June, tied Islanders legend Al Arbour for fourth on the all-time win list with his 782nd career victory Saturday and can snap that tie with a win tonight. Trotz will be leading his 1,562nd game, tops on the active list.
"You get into coaching, you talk about certain names that you have so much respect for," Trotz said today. "It's an honor to be there when you hear someone say, 'Hey, you and Al Arbour.' I feel a little bit out of place. It's a total honor to be even mentioned but because of the wins, you're right there."
5. Around the boards: The Sabres are 12-10-3 all-time in New Year's Eve home games, including a 1-3-1 mark against the Islanders. ... This will be the first meeting since captain John Tavares left the Islanders for Toronto over the summer. ... Sabres center Vladimir Sobotka will play his 500th career game. ... The Isles are 14-5-4 against the East and just 6-8-0 against the West. ... Former Canadian Olympic hero Jennifer Botterill, the sister of Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill, is at the game to serve in an analyst role for the Islanders' MSG telecast. That version is not seen in Buffalo and is only broadcast to the Eastern half of the state.