The season-making (or breaking) homestand begins tonight. Seven games in a row, starting with a 7 p.m. matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks in KeyBank Center. The Sabres can pull within one point of idle Columbus for the final East wild-card slot with a win.
"Our sole focus is on tonight," coach Phil Housley said today. "I know there's a lot of talk that we have a lot of games at home but they're not going to mean anything if we don't focus on what's right in front of us. And that's the Chicago Blackhawks."
The Sabres have split their last four games, all on the road, and have not played here since their 5-3 loss to Tampa Bay on Jan. 12. They are 14-6-3 at home for the season, already holding three more wins downtown than they earned all of last season.
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, remain last in the Central Division and are seven points out of the West's final playoff spot. They haven't played in 10 days but their last two games before their break were impressive home wins over Washington (8-5) and the New York Islanders (3-2 in a shootout).
Here are Five Things to Know about tonight's game:
1. Lineup news: Carter Hutton (15-14-3, 2.79/.911) will start in goal for the Sabres against Chicago's Cam Ward (8-8-4, 3.87/.888), the 2006 Stanley Cup hero from Carolina who stymied the Sabres in the Eastern Conference final. Lawrence Pilut will be back on defense for the first time since the Jan. 18 loss in Vancouver and Nathan Beaulieu will return to the press box. Jason Pominville returns to the lineup after getting scratched Wednesday in Dallas to allow Remi Elie to play against his former team.
It will be interesting to see how Pilut reacts to his long break out of the lineup.
"You just stay mentally fresh all the time, keep working hard on everything you're doing," Pilut said today. "I'm probably going to be a little rusty but I'll get back in good. I feel good, mentally fresh. It will be fun."
"He's going to be rusty," Housley admitted. "I just think if he learns from the mistakes he's had previous and keeps the game simpler, I really like Lawrence's game. He moves the puck well, has great vision, has poise with the puck, especially at the offensive blue line. Focus on those strengths but keep the game simple."
#Sabres lines/pairings during the morning skate
— Lance Lysowski (@LLysowski) February 1, 2019
2. A lopsided series: The Sabres posted a 5-3 victory here in the teams' previous meeting last March -- and that ended Buffalo's 12-game losing streak against Chicago at 0-9-3. The Sabres haven't posted consecutive wins over Chicago since winning three in a row from Dec. 3, 2003, to Dec. 15, 2007.
The Sabres are 3-10-3 against Chicago since the Hawks drafted South Buffalo native Patrick Kane at No. 1 overall in 2007. The teams meet March 7 in United Center, where Buffalo is 0-6-2 in its last eight visits and hasn't won since five months before Kane was drafted (a 2-1 win on Jan. 10, 2007).
3. Citizen Kane is red-hot: Kane enters the game fifth in the NHL in scoring with 71 points. He's eighth in both goals and assists (29-42). Kane is on a nine-game point streak -- and has rolled up 21 points in those games with seven goals and 14 assists. The 21 points are the most in the NHL since Jan. 1. In 15 career games against the Sabres, Kane has 17 points (8-9).
"He finds a way to produce every night," Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton, who took over in November for Joel Quenneville, said today after his team's morning skate. "His work ethic away from the puck is really good. He's finding a way to create turnovers and when he does that, his line is going to create a lot of offense."
Kane was named the NHL's Third Star of the Month for January early Friday afternoon. Former Sabres goalie Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders was named the Second Star and Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau was the First Star. Kane is at 899 career points, one shy of becoming the 113th player in NHL history to get to 900.
"It's always special coming back to play in Buffalo and since it's only a once-a-year thing, I think it makes it even more special," Kane said after the Hawks practiced here Thursday. "I pretty much grew up in this rink coming to a lot of Sabres games when I was younger. I really enjoyed my time as a kid here, whether it was with my friends or my dad or my family. Brings back a lot of memories when you walk through the tunnel and you see where I used to sit."
4. A tale of two power plays: The Sabres are 0 for 16 in the last six games and just 1 for 25 in their last 10 games. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, have been on fire with the man advantage -- scoring a power-play goal in nine straight games for the first time since 2013 and connecting at a molten 41.5 percent clip (17 of 41) while scoring in 12 of the last 13 games.
"When Jeremy came in, they made sure there was some different structure and there were things he was adamant about seeing out there and that pays off," Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith said today. "You have a group that stays together with guys in the right spots ... They didn't move the power play around a million times, stuck with a group, you build with that and get some confidence."
"They've been hot," Housley said. "I'm sure they have a lot of confidence moving the puck. We're going to try to stay out of the box, No. 1, and be disciplined and use our feet to check because it's deadly. When a power play has confidence, they can't wait to get over the boards so we're going to try to take that away from them."
Perhaps Buffalo can get a break tonight against a Chicago penalty killing unit that's last in the league overall (74.1 percent) and on the road (72 percent).
5. By the numbers: Carter Hutton is 10-4-2 at home with a 2.36 GAA and .926 save percentage. ... Rasmus Dahlin is second among NHL rookies with 28 points and leads rookies with 23 assists. ... The Sabres are 14-13 in one-goal games while the Hawks are just 9-16, with eight losses coming in overtime and a ninth by shootout. In giving up an NHL-worst 190 goals, Chicago has lost 11 times by three goals or more. ... One negative sure to go against the trend tonight: The Sabres are 2-4 against the Central Division while the Hawks are 2-5-1 against the Atlantic. A huge difference between the teams is record against the Pacific -- where Buffalo is 10-4-1 and Chicago is a paltry 1-10-3.