Too little, too late?: The Sabres are finding a stride, with three wins in the last four games, and have a chance to go 4-1 in a five-game stretch for the first time since October with a win tonight. But it's probably not going to mean a whole lot in what's left of the playoff race. Buffalo is 10 points behind Toronto with a game in hand in the battle for third place in the Atlantic Division, and 11 behind Columbus and Philadelphia in the wild-card race.
The Leafs, meanwhile, are third in the Atlantic and four points ahead of Florida after Saturday's 4-2 win in Ottawa. The Sabres have pulled within six points of the Panthers and are two behind Montreal with three games in hand.
"The last few games have been better for us for sure but we have to keep winning games. That's all there is to it," Sabres winger Kyle Okposo said after taking an optional morning skate today. "We're going out knowing we need our 'A' game every single night, especially against a team like this that's so dangerous offensively. The more games you win, the more confidence you have and you get on a roll. We're looking to really get on one."
Atlantic standings: BOS-TBL-TOR won today. FLA lost. MON lost in OT (blowing 3-0 lead)
BOS 59 84
TBL 59 83
TOR 59 70
FLA 58 66
MON 61 62
BUF 58 60
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) February 16, 2020
Forward power: The Sabres are as healthy up front as they've been since they lost Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson to season-ending injuries in November. Okposo and Victor Olofsson are back and Marcus Johansson, who sat out Thursday's win over Columbus with a minor upper-body injury, will play tonight.
"For sure, the depth in the forward group helps us a lot to feel the potential of playing a four-line game, which is something we were really good at early in the season and we just never seemed to get it back since Sweden," coach Ralph Krueger said today. "From Sweden to now, it’s the first time we’re sitting at the lineup feeling comfortable with four lines that can play against anybody in the other group."
Michael Frolik is still bothered by illness and will be the scratch tonight. Here's how the Sabres lined up in warmups:
#Sabres in warmup vs. #Leafs
Scratch: Frolik (illness); Gilmour, Hammond (healthy)
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) February 16, 2020
"It’s always a balance when you’re home. How much do you invest in matchups and how much do you invest in the rhythm of your own team?" Krueger said. "I think we’ve done really well where we’ve been able to concentrate on rhythm and pace and let lines share responsibilities like playing up against (Auston) Matthews or (John) Tavares tonight, two of the elite lines in the whole National Hockey League. But we feel all four lines can do that today, so that’s the different feeling since just a few games now that we have back."
Vs. the Leafs: The Sabres are just 1-5-2 in their last eight meetings with Toronto, with the victory being their 6-4 triumph here on Nov. 29. But those rowdy Toronto fans have gone home unhappy a lot in recent seasons as the Sabres are 20-5-2 in their last 27 home games against the Leafs. The Leafs won both meetings this year in Scotiabank Arena, 2-1 in overtime on Nov. 30 and 5-3 on Dec. 17.
In the nets: Carter Hutton sat out practice Saturday on a maintenance day and skated Sunday. Krueger said it will be a game-time decision to go with Hutton or Jonas Johansson, and Hutton took warmed up fully. He's won his last three starts, posting a .929 save percentage.
Starter Frederik Andersen (24-10-6, 2.88/.909) is scheduled to get the call for Toronto, and he is 12-3, 2.29/.921 in his career vs. the Sabres. New backup Jack Campbell has gone 3-0-1 since being acquired in a trade from Los Angeles. He made 25 saves in Saturday night's 4-2 win in Ottawa.
The scoring race: Sabres captain Jack Eichel is sixth in the NHL with 73 points (32-41-73) and his current pace for the season is 45 goals and 104 points. Leafs stud Auston Matthews is tied with Boston's David Pastrnak for the NHL lead in goals with 42 and is 10th in scoring with 71 points. Matthews has eight goals in his last 10 games and 11 goals in the last 13. In 14 career games against Buffalo, Matthews has 11 goals and 17 points.
"He's a pure goal scorer," Okposo said of Matthews. "His confidence is growing with each season he plays and he's such a special talent on that side of the puck. He's going to make plays out there. Mitch Marner is going to make plays. Tavares and (William) Nylander will, too. It's a real test for us to limit their time and space."
Eichel vs. the Leafs: The captain has relished Buffalo's No. 1 rivalry with 22 points (13-9) in 16 career games against Toronto. He's at 7-4-11 in seven home games against the Leafs as well. Eichel's 13 goals against the Leafs are his highest total against any NHL opponent and his 1.4 points per game against Toronto trails only his 1.5 figure against Ottawa and Vegas.
"He's taken his game to another level the whole year but there's certain games that showcase some of the other elite talents in the league and he definitely thrives off those games," Okposo said.
Eichel has scored 0.81 goals per game in his career against the Leafs – and only Alex Ovechkin (0.82) has scored at a higher rate against Toronto among active players with at least five games against the Leafs.
"The emotions will automatically be there because it’s Toronto," Eichel said after practice Saturday. "The environment should be a good one. It’s an important game for both sides. Obviously, we’re trying to find points any way we can and put ourselves in the best position moving forward and they’re the same way. We just have to be ready to play. We know it’s going to be a tough night."
Skinner Slump Meter: The career-worst goal drought for Sabres winger Jeff Skinner is at 20 games for the winger and 30 for the team, with no goals since Dec. 2 against New Jersey plus 10 games missed due to a shoulder injury. Skinner's assist on Evan Rodrigues' goal Thursday night was his first point in 10 games. For the season, he has 11 goals and nine assists in 48 games with a team-worst minus-17 rating.