TAMPA – This is probably the last place the Buffalo Sabres need to be today. Reeling after three straight losses, and just 11 wins in their last 34 games, the Sabres face the tall task of meeting the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning tonight in Amalie Arena.
It's a 7:30 game on MSG and WGR Radio. And while it's a mismatch on paper, it should be noted that the Sabres are 1-2 against the Lightning this season – and led in the third period in both of their losses. Tampa Bay broke the Sabres' 10-game winning streak with a 5-4 win here on Nov. 29.
Starting with that game, the Sabres are 11-18-5 and the Lightning are 29-4-3 – a 34-point difference. Yeesh.
"It's not hard to get up for these games," center Jack Eichel said before today's optional skate. "Obviously they're the best team in the league and guys are pretty emotionally invested in these ones. If you're not, they're going to blow you out of the water. I think it's good, a good test right now for us where we're at."
Here are Five Things to Know about tonight's game:
1. In the nets: It will be Linus Ullmark (13-7-4, 3.02/.909) vs. Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy (26-7-4, 2.28/.930). Backup Louis Domingue – who has won 11 straight starts – has started the three previous meetings and gone 2-1 but the Lightning are going with their starter tonight. Vasilevskiy had a team-record shutout string of 184:04 ended in Monday's 5-1 win at Columbus. Ullmark will be starting for the seventh time in nine games and has dropped two straight after going 3-0-1 in the previous four.
2. Lightning bringing the thunder: Tampa Bay enters tonight's game at 46-11-4, and its 96 points are 15 more than any club in the NHL. The Lightning have won seven straight and are 9-0-2 in February. They are on pace for 62 wins, which would tie Detroit's 1995-96 NHL record, and 129 points. The NHL record is 132 by those Red Wings. The Lightning are 14-3 against the Atlantic Division and 31-5 against the Eastern Conference.
Tampa Bay has a remarkable plus-80 goal differential, highest through 61 games in the NHL since 2006, and nearly double the next-best marks of plus-41 by Toronto and Calgary. The Bolts lead the league on the power play at 30.2 percent, which would be the fourth-highest figure in league history. They have scored at least one power-play goal for six straight games.
"They move the puck extremely well," Sabres coach Phil Housley said today. "From low to high, from East to West. The No. 1 priority is to try to get some up-ice pressure on them. We've done a really good job of just trying to disconnect their breakout. When they enter with speed, they're effective and try to score off the rush."
#TBLightning numbers are like a video game: 46-11-4 overall (24-5-2 at home). W7 straight and 9-0-2 in Febraury. Plus-80 goal differential (no one else better than plus-41). 30.2% on PP/85.1% on PK... 14-3-0 vs. Atlantic and 31-5-0 against the East. #Sabres
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) February 21, 2019
3. Kucherov's brilliance: Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov remains the NHL leader in assists (70) and points (99) and is looking to become the first player in franchise history with multiple 100-point seasons. Kucherov had a five-game goal streak ended with a pointless game Tuesday at Philadelphia. In those five games, he had an incredible 18 points (7-11) after going 10 games without a goal.
4. The lineups: The Sabres had a full practice Wednesday and it showed that Evan Rodrigues will be at wing on the top line with Jeff Skinner and Eichel, his former college center at Boston University.
At practice Wednesday, the Sabres looked like this:
On defense, Casey Nelson may get in for the first time since he was injured Dec. 4 and Lawrence Pilut could be a healthy scratch. Housley would not commit to any lineup on defense, saying it was a game-time decision.
Tampa defenseman and reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman is a game-time decision after sitting out Tuesday's game at Philadelphia with a lower-body injury. Hedman took the morning skate today. Center Brayden Point (35-43-78) returns to the lineup after being scratched for the Philly game for being late to the team bus.
5. By the numbers: Today is the 45th anniversary of the death of Hall of Fame defenseman/doughnut magnate Tim Horton, who was killed when he crashed his sports car at high speed on the Queen Elizabeth Way while driving back from Toronto after the Sabres' game against the Maple Leafs. ... Eichel has 19 goals and his next one will make him the third player in franchise history to get 20 in his first four seasons, joining Rick Martin and Thomas Vanek. ... At 36 goals, Jeff Skinner remains on pace for 50, which no Sabres player has reached since Alexander Mogilny and Pat LaFontaine in 1993. ... The Lightning are 29-3-3 when scoring first, 24-1-2 when leading after the first period and 30-2-2 when leading after the second.