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Sabres at Blue Jackets: Five Things to Know

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When the Buffalo Sabres reconvened for practice Sunday in HarborCenter, coach Phil Housley wanted his players to reflect on how they performed during training camp four months earlier.

That's when the Sabres (24-18-6) established how they wanted to play 5-on-5. Since then, they have played poorly in the defensive zone, which has often rendered their offense ineffective. They will try to find a solution tonight against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Nationwide Arena. Puck drop is 7:08 p.m. Eastern.

While Buffalo is two points back of the second wild-card playoff spot, the Blue Jackets (28-17-3) are third in the Metropolitan Division with 59 points despite losing its final two games before the All-Star break. Both teams aren't sure what to expect after a long break.

"We’ve had some time here to touch the puck," Columbus coach John Tortorella said. "I don’t know how we’re going to play tonight. I haven’t been involved in a team taking seven or eight days off like we have here. … I’m anxious to see us play. I’m glad we’re playing. I don’t think we can practice much more."

Here are Five Things to Know about tonight's game:

1. Lineup: Defenseman Matt Hunwick will play for the first time in 14 games, and Lawrence Pilut will be a healthy scratch for the second time in four games, coach Phil Housley told reporters following Tuesday's morning skate.

Hunwick has played only twice this season -- he made his season debut in Boston on Dec. 16 -- and will skate alongside Marco Scandella. Nathan Beaulieu and Remi Elie will also be healthy scratches. Forward lines remained the same from Monday's practice:

"It is a learning experience," Housley said of scratching Pilut. "We’ve been patient all along, not only with Lawrence but our young players. We know they’re going to make mistakes. I thought our young guys were playing very good hockey before the break. Hopefully that transfers into tonight. ... Hunny has bought his time and earned his due to get back into the lineup."

Additionally, the Blue Jackets will be without Boone Jenner, who aggravated a previous injury during practice Monday. Jenner, who has nine goals this season, will be replaced in the lineup by Markus Hannikainen.

Sabres defenseman Lawrence Pilut again a healthy scratch

2. Hutton back in goal: Carter Hutton will get the start tonight against Columbus, despite winning only two of his previous 12 starts. Hutton went 8-0 with a .936 save percentage during the 10-game winning streak, but he has since gone 2-8-2 with a .898 save percentage.

Linus Ullmark (10-4-3, .914 save percentage) will likely start tomorrow night in Dallas. Sergei Bobrovsky (19-14-1, .904) will be in net for the Blue Jackets.

3. Porous defense: The Sabres need to be better defensively. That's no secret. They allowed 14 goals during their three-game road trip in western Canada. Housley is trying to address that with the personnel changes, but the onus also falls on the forwards.

The Sabres need to be better in the defensive zone. Doing so will improve offensive-zone time, which will lead to more scoring chances.

"I would expect they’re going to try to establish their forecheck," Housley said. "That’s a really big strength of their team, and we’re going to have to manage the puck as they transition really well. When it’s called for we’re going to have to be good in our D zone. They’re a very good possession team down low. Guard against their forecheck, make good decisions and when they do come to forecheck we’re going to have to buy time for our D. Get in their way, give our D an extra second or two so we can get that puck on the tape and exit the zone."

4. Cannon fodder: Despite holding a playoff position, Tortorella is irritated with some of his players. As a result, he hired Martin St. Louis, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November, as a part-time consultant.

St. Louis will be tasked with fixing the Blue Jackets' power play -- which ranks 27th in the NHL and is 5-for-43 over the past 17 games -- but Tortorella is also seeking help with the Blue Jackets' 5-on-5 play. They scored one goal in each of their previous two games before the All-Star break, including a 2-1 loss to Minnesota in which Columbus had only 20 shots on goal.

Artemi Panarin has 19 goals among 53 points, Cam Atkinson has 27 goals among 48 points and Pierre Luc-Dubois has 17 goals among 43 points. Though they have lacked secondary scoring, this is an offense capable of capitalizing on mistakes.

5. By the numbers: A win or overtime loss would give the Sabres points in three straight games against the Blue Jackets for the first time since Dec. 3, 2010, to Oct. 27, 2011. ... Jack Eichel has 11 points in 10 career games against Columbus. ... Rasmus Ristolainen has an assist in each of his last three games and at least one point in six of his last seven road games. ... This is Buffalo's 10th of 16 sets of back-to-back games this season. ... The Blue Jackets are 13-3-3 in one-goal games this season. ... Columbus leads the all-time series against Buffalo, 18-11-1, and has won six of the past eight meetings. ... On this date in 1984, Gilbert Perreault had two goals and an assist in his 1,000th career game, a 7-3 win over Pittsburgh.

Casey Mittelstadt looks to pick up where he left off before Sabres break

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