EDMONTON – If the Buffalo Sabres are to keep pace in the Eastern Conference, they will have to figure out how to win away from KeyBank Center.
The Sabres (23-16-16) have only one win their last nine road games, and their final three games before the All-Star break are on the road, beginning tonight at Rogers Place against the Edmonton Oilers (21-21-3). Puck drop is 9:08 p.m. Eastern.
Buffalo will then travel to Calgary and Vancouver before an 11-day break between games.
This is Jack Eichel versus Connor McDavid – the top two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft. Though Eichel's Sabres have performed better than the Oilers this season, McDavid has all the hardware and playoff experience. McDavid, a dynamic 22-year-old center, won the Hart Trophy in 2017 when the Oilers fell one game short of the Western Conference finals.
It is always a spectacle when these two face each other – the Sabres won the meeting last season in Edmonton, 5-0 – but there is more at stake this time. Buffalo does not control a playoff spot, despite leading the NHL in points only 20 games ago.
"We know we have to be a lot better," Eichel said following the morning skate in Rogers Place. "Our efforts have been there, but it’s been the execution and timing. … I’ve got to be better tonight. The last few games were not my best, but it’s a long season and we need to maintain our even-keelness."
Here are Five Things to Know about tonight's game:
1. Lineup changes: Defenseman Nathan Beaulieu will replace Lawrence Pilut in the lineup after Pilut struggled in a 5-3 loss to Tampa Bay on Saturday night. Beaulieu, who has a plus-2 rating in 25 games this season, played only two of the previous 12 games.
He will skate alongside Marco Scandella on the third defensive pairing, while Rasmus Dahlin will play with Zach Bogosian:
#Sabres’ lines/pairings during the morning skate in Edmonton:
Extras: Hunwick, Pilut, Elie
— Lance Lysowski (@LLysowski) January 14, 2019
"We have eight bona fide, very good defensemen back there, but I thought Nate earned an opportunity back in the lineup," coach Phil Housley said. "I like what he brings. He’s a physical player. He skates well, he moves the puck well. He’ll get an opportunity on the power play tonight, so it’s good to have him back in the lineup.”
There were no other changes to the lineup, but Housley did tweak his lines again. Dahlin remained on the top power-play unit during the morning skate, and Beaulieu took Pilut's spot with the second group. Vladimir Sobotka was moved to left wing with Evan Rodrigues centering the third line.
2. Hutton's net: Housley will turn to Carter Hutton in net tonight, despite Hutton having lost seven of his previous eight starts. To be fair, Hutton is not solely responsible for those losses.
His teammates have not played well in front of him and there have been some fluke goals, but Linus Ullmark played fairly well against Tampa Bay and is 9-3-3 this season. Regardless of who's in net, the Sabres will need to be better in the defensive zone, particularly against McDavid.
3. Familiar problem: The Oilers are a mess. Firing Todd McLellan in November and replacing him with Ken Hitchcock sparked an impressive two-week stretch, however, no coach can be expected to win with this depleted roster.
Hitchcock continues to shuffle his lines to try to spark secondary scoring. McDavid will center the first line with fellow All-Star Leon Draisaitl on left wing and Ty Rattie on the right side. The Sabres must limit McDavid's looks and must create turnovers to begin a quick breakout.
"They’ve really changed, and they’ve really become a good team," Hitchcock said of the Sabres. "They are also a team that if we allow them to play on the move they’re going to hurt us big time. We’ve got to get our game out there. Our game is different than their game. Our game is more of a deeper game. We’ve got to control play in the offensive zone, and if we allow them to play on the move they are very dynamic."
4. Penalties: The Sabres need to stay out of the penalty box. They did a fine job of that Saturday against Tampa Bay by not taking a penalty until Johan Larsson's bizarre cross-checking minor in the third period.
And it's worth noting their penalty kill ranks sixth in the league and is 43-for-48 over the past 18 games. However, they have lost momentum because of penalties -- including Eichel's elbow on Ryan McDonagh prior to Steven Stamkos' game-winning goal Saturday.
5. By the numbers: The Sabres are 5-4-1 in their last 10 games against the Oilers and trail 26-38-11 in the all-time series, but Buffalo has won each of the last four games over the past two seasons. ... Buffalo is 9-2-1 against the Pacific Division this season, including wins in each of their last five games. ... Despite their struggles, the Oilers have sold out 527 consecutive home games. ... Edmonton has registered more than 30 shots on goal only once in its past 15 games.