CALGARY – The road trip does not get easier for the Buffalo Sabres. In fact, their game tonight against the Calgary Flames could be one of the more difficult tests of the season and it could not come at a worse time.
The Sabres (23-17-6) suffered arguably their worst loss of the season Monday in Edmonton when they allowed a season-high seven goals. The Flames (30-13-4) are atop the Western Conference with 64 points and are on a five-game winning streak.
On paper, it is a terrible matchup for the struggling Sabres, who have won only six of their last 21 games. Puck drop in Scotiabank Saddledome is 9:30 p.m. EST.
"We know that they’re going to be a very desperate team, not only with where they’re at in the standings but the way their last game went against Edmonton," Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk said.
1. Lineup: Lawrence Pilut was not a healthy scratch for long. The 23-year-old defenseman will be back in the lineup tonight after he was replaced by Nathan Beaulieu against the Oilers. Beaulieu had played only two of the previous 12 games and it showed.
Marco Scandella remained in the lineup despite his egregious turnover against the Oilers and will skate alongside Jake McCabe. Pilut is paired with Rasmus Ristolainen, while the forward lines did not change from Tuesday's practice:
Sabres’ lines the same as last night:
— Lance Lysowski (@LLysowski) January 15, 2019
Neither defenseman Travis Hamonic nor winger James Neal will play tonight against the Sabres, according to Flames coach Bill Peters. Hamonic has 12 points with a plus-7 rating in 38 games this season, while Neal has struggled with a negative-11 rating and only 10 points.
David Rittich, who is 17-4-3 with a .920 save percentage this season, will start for the Flames.
2. Goalie change: Linus Ullmark will start for the Sabres tonight, according to coach Phil Housley. Carter Hutton was pulled Monday in Edmonton after allowing five goals on 12 shots, though Housley gave Hutton a vote of confidence following practice Tuesday.
Hutton has been the victim of bad luck, but he has lost eight of his last nine starts. Ullmark, meanwhile, is 9-3-3 with a .918 save percentage this season. He has started two of the past three games and allowed five goals on 30 shots against Tampa Bay on Saturday.
3. On fire: The Flames rank second in the NHL in goals (173) and have four players with at least 20 goals. Winger Johnny Gaudreau ranks seventh in the league in goals (27, tied), fifth in assists (42) and second in points (69, tied).
He also is surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including Sean Monahan (25 goals), Tkachuk (23) and Elias Lindholm (21). The Flames average only 31.8 shots per game – which ranks 15th – but they have the skill to take advantage of opponents' mistakes. Calgary's 7-1 win over Arizona on Sunday was the Flames' sixth seven-goal game of the season.
Buffalo lost to Calgary, 2-1, in KeyBank Center on Oct. 30.
"They’re playing with a lot of confidence," Housley said of the Flames. "It presents a great challenge for us. Their transition game is one of the best in the league, so we’re going to have to manage that part of our game and we’re going to have to check better. Our attention to detail got away from us a little bit in Edmonton. We’re going to focus on that because this team is a very high-powered offense."
4. Jack's drought: The Sabres need a big game out of Jack Eichel. He has only one point in their last nine games, though he missed three-plus games because of an upper-body injury.
His line controlled play against the Oilers, but they were unable to beat goalie Mikko Koskinen. Prior to the game in Edmonton, Eichel acknowledged that he was not at his best during his first two games back from injury. That's only natural.
Eichel seems to play his best against top teams and top players. Gaudreau is regarded by many as among the top five players in the NHL.
"I think just simplify his game," Housley on what Eichel needs to do to score. "Jack is our captain for a reason. He means well. His attentions are well. He cares about his teammates, he cares about the City of Buffalo and wants to win. Sometimes that burden can get the best of him. Simplify his game, take what the game gives him, shoot more pucks, go to the net – things will happen for him. "
5. By the numbers: The Flames are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games and matched their franchise record for fewest games to record 30 wins (47 games played), a mark previously set in 1988-89 when they won the Stanley Cup. ... Gaudreau has an eight-game point streak and his 21 multipoint games are 12 shy of the franchise record for most in a season. ... Buffalo leads the all-time series with Calgary, 52-37-18. ... The Sabres are 9-3-1 against the Pacific Division this season.