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Sabres game day: Jeff Skinner returning at start of important stretch

Matchup: Buffalo Sabres (22-20-7) vs. Ottawa Senators (17-23-9)
Where: KeyBank Center
When: 7 p.m.
TV: MSG
Radio: WGR 550

Skinner's return: The Sabres have their $72 million man back in the lineup. Jeff Skinner, who missed the past 10 games with an upper-body injury, will play Tuesday night against Ottawa. The 27-year-old has 11 goals among 19 points with a minus-9 rating in 39 games this season.

Comparatively, Skinner had 26 goals among 39 points in his first 39 games with the Sabres in 2018-19. Though Skinner was showing progress in his final 11 games before the injury, he was starting to generate scoring chances and improved defensively.

"To continue on the path he was on," coach Ralph Krueger said when asked what he wants to see from Skinner. "The last handful of games we were really pleased with the way he was able to continue to create offense while taking care of the responsibilities without the puck that we need from everybody to be a competitive team here. We liked his involvement in the whole game in both directions. … He has a good spirit here, like everybody else. They came out of the break with energy and they need to put it into play here."

Lineup: Fans won't see Skinner reuniting with Jack Eichel. Skinner skated Monday with Marcus Johansson and Michael Frolik, while Zemgus Girgensons remained on the Sabres' first line. Krueger will use another seven-defensemen lineup, with Evan Rodrigues and Zach Bogosian scratched.

Krueger expressed hope that Skinner could develop instant chemistry with his linemates.

"There was definitely a synergy in the lineup when Johansson, Skinner and Sobotka played together," Krueger said. "Frolik gives us a lot of that kind of hockey. You never want to compare two players exactly, but the stability (Frolik) brings to any line he plays with. He's such a pro. He makes the simple decisions and solidifies them to be able to be a little more free to play offense.

"We did find that Johansson and Skinner, here and there, had some synergies in the 5-on-5 game, and we expect with Frolik, who's really been a good addition here to the group as far as playing within the framework we want him to play in, that they'll bring us a secondary threat all the time."

Visit by Senators opens long run at home that will determine Sabres' fate

Here's how the Sabres lined up in practice Monday:

Goalies: Linus Ullmark, who is finally being referred to by Krueger as the Sabres' starting goalie, will be in net Tuesday night against the Senators. Ullmark had a .932 save percentage while winning five of his last seven starts before the break.

Craig Anderson, who has not appeared in a game since Jan. 16, will start for Ottawa. Anderson has lost in six of his last seven appearances, but he has a .929 save percentage in 31 career games against Buffalo.

Chaotic start: This is the second game of a back-to-back for Ottawa, which lost in a shootout, 4-3, to New Jersey on Monday night. The Senators scored twice in the third period to take the lead, only to allow the tying goal with 3:21 remaining in regulation.

It will be an important first period for Buffalo. The Sabres strung together a few impressive performances prior to the break, but they've had slow starts at times this season, as illustrated by their negative-11 goal differential in the first period.

Buffalo had 44 shots on goal in a 3-1 loss at Ottawa on Dec. 23. The Sabres are 11-4-3 in their last 18 games against the Senators and have a 12-4-4 record in the teams’ last 20 meetings in Buffalo.

Special teams: Krueger has orchestrated an impressive turnaround with the Sabres' game at 5 on 5, but special teams could determine if they can re-enter the playoff race. They went 5-for-10 on the power play in three games prior to the road trip, only to fail to score in five opportunities in Dallas and Nashville.

The penalty kill, meanwhile, has a conversation rate of 85% this month and has benefited from the addition of Frolik.

Home stretch: Nine of the Sabres' next 10 games are at KeyBank Center, a critical stretch that could help them gain ground in the Eastern Conference standings. Buffalo is 14-6-3 at home this season, though one regulation loss occurred in Stockholm during the NHL Global Series.

The Sabres are averaging 3.43 goals per game at home this season, on pace for their best home scoring rate since 2006-07 (3.93).

The Sabres have a plus-15 goal differential at home, while their power play and penalty kill rank 17th and 15th in the league, respectively. Eichel has 20 goals among 38 points with a league-best plus-20 rating at home this season. His 18:10 average ice time in those games leads all NHL forwards.

Captain Jack: Eichel has been held without a point in just three of his last 30 games played. During that stretch, which began with a four-goal performance against Ottawa on Nov. 16, Eichel has 43 points in 30 appearances.

Entering Monday, Eichel's 43 points during that span ranked third in the NHL behind Nathan MacKinnon and Artemi Panarin.

 

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