Halfway through the season, Buffalo is setting the standard in the Northeast Division and trailing the New Jersey Devils for top spot in the Conference. Tampa Bay sits three points out of a playoff spot but have done well to keep their heads above water (they can thank ten extra time losses for that). A win for the Sabres would make it five in a row and they have had fun with the Lightning in recent memory.
Drew Stafford equalized in the only match of 2009 with 17 seconds on the clock and Tyler Myers' shootout winner sealed a comeback; just one of the ways Buffalo has found a way to earn two points on the year. The group may look to breeze through this but can't be stubborn because of how unpredictable the game is. With the amount of defeats Tampa Bay has suffered through the Sabres, I have no doubt they will come out with a purpose.
Ten more thoughts on the game below.
- Those of you that have read my previews will know that I like to pull out some numbers when a series spread throughout a few years has been controlled by one team. Buffalo is 13-4 in the last 17 meetings with Tampa Bay having outscored them 70-47.
Zenon Konopka pounced on the game-winner in a 3-1 win over Pittsburgh on his 29th birthday the other day. For a player who plays as hard as he does and gets his nose in the dirty areas, it was pleasant to see him get rewarded.
- Let's pull out our statistics that have become routine for Ryan Miller who is 14-3 in his duties against the Lightning. Mike Smith is 1-2 lifetime with Buffalo and 2-7 on the road this season. Antero Niittymaki, chosen to represent Finland in the Olympics for a second time, hasn't seen a start in over two weeks. Call me crazy, but he's been a superior goaltender to Smith.
- While Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis haven't reached double digits in goals, both Steven Stamkos and Ryan Malone have more tallies than the two leaders do put together. Stamkos leads the team with seven powerplay markers and Malone's seven game-winners have the whole league trailing.
Patrick Kaleta may return to the line-up today. If you think it's been hard on us to not see him with the squad, it's more bothering for the gritty forward who claims the experience has been miserable. Matt Walker could join the Lightning as well while Jeff Halpern, Todd Fedoruk, Paul Ranger and possibly Alex Tanguay won't dress.
- I've been impressed with Jason Pominville's activities recently as he's maintained a positive attitude and stuck to his arsenal despite slumps. He's been fairly consistent in the last month and is now on a line with Jochen Hecht and Tim Connolly. There's an element about this line that spells potential.
- Chris Butler and Andrej Sekera are vying for that spot as a sixth defenseman. Butler is three points ahead in production but his minus-10 rating does him no good. Who do you think should be maintaining the final defensive position in Buffalo?
- St. Louis has 36 assists, the majority of which are primary helpers. He isn't scoring at his usual pace but he is setting up the likes of Stamkos and Malone. Watching him quarterback a powerplay is impressive for sure.
- You might have it stored in your memory that Lecavalier and Hecht dropped the gloves a year ago. The voted winner was the German. It's also worthy to note that he has been more physical and productive coincidentally at the same time.
- Tampa Bay is 6-12-6 when they trail first and Buffalo is 17-2-3 when gaining the upper hand. Prone to losing leads, the Lightning need that quick start to gain momentum against a Sabres team that has made it a habit of playing from behind in the past few weeks.
Outshot in three of the last four matches, the Sabres have pulled out four wins nonetheless. With their slow beginnings attracting negative attention, Lindy Ruff must get the players prepared from the first shift. There's only so much theft you can get away with.