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Preview: Sabres host Islanders in critical matchup

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Trailing by just four points, with two games in-hand, the New York Islanders are hot on the Sabres’ tail in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Buffalo Sabres v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Game 40

Buffalo Sabres (21-12-6) vs New York Islanders (20-13-4)

Puck Drop: 6:00 PM | KeyBank Center | Buffalo, NY

TV: MSG-B

Radio: WGR 550

SB Nation Islanders blog: Lighthouse Hockey

Know Your Opponent

New York Islanders

Record: (20-13-4) | 44 points

Last 10: 7-2-1

Division Ranking: 4th in the Metropolitan Division

Conference Ranking: 9th in the Eastern Conference

PP: 23rd (16.1%)

PK: 20th (78.0%)

What to watch for

1. Eastern Conference Playoff Implications

Yes, it’s still early. Heck, we haven’t even reached the mid-way point of the season yet, but this game still represents a potential four-point swing in the Eastern Conference standings. With two games in hand, the rejuvenated Islanders only trail Buffalo by four points. As the top team on the outside looking in, they are currently the most immediate threat to the Sabres’ playoff hopes this season. After a lackluster finish against the Boston Bruins on Saturday, the blue-and-gold need to secure a regulation victory tonight.

2. The Return of Crazy Eyes

In his much anticipated return to KeyBank Center, Robin Lehner will be the likely starter in net for the Islanders. As one of the most widely criticized players during his time in Western New York, the 27-year-old boasts a save percentage of .926 this season and currently holds a record of 8-6-0-3. Much like the Islanders team as a whole, Lehner is on fire, stopping 101 of the last 103 shots that he’s faced.

3. A Slippery Slope

This game represents a proverbial fork in the road for Buffalo. Since their 10-game winning-streak in November, the team has posted a record of 4-6-4. A victory tonight would provide some much-needed additional cushion in the standings over a team that is very much a threat in the Eastern Conference Wild Card picture. A loss could very well send the Sabres on a downward spiral. It’s only the 40th game of the season, but Phil Housley’s squad needs to treat this matchup like a playoff game.

4. Smith Recalled

Much to the delight of Sabres fans everywhere, the team announced this morning that C.J. Smith had been recalled from the Rochester. With 29 points in 33 games with the Amerks this season, the 24-year-old could help the team address the depth scoring issues that have plagued them all season. Housley did confirm that Smith would indeed play tonight, but it has yet to be announced which line he will skate on.

Buffalo Sabres

Forwards

Jeff Skinner - Jack Eichel - Sam Reinhart

Conor Sheary - Casey Mittelstadt - Kyle Okposo

Tage Thompson - Vladimir Sobotka - Jason Pominville

Remi Elie - Johan Larsson - Evan Rodrigues

C.J. Smith (recalled this morning)

Defense

Nathan Beaulieu - Rasmus Ristolainen

Rasmus Dahlin - Jake McCabe

Marco Scandella - Zach Bogosian

Starting Goaltender: Carter Hutton (Unconfirmed)

New York Islanders

Forwards

Anders Lee - Brock Nelson - Josh Ho-Sang

Anthony Beauvillier - Mathew Barzal - Josh Bailey

Michael Dal Colle - Valtteri Filppula - Leo Komarov

Matt Martin - Casey Cizikas - Ross Johnston

Defense

Nick Leddy - Johnny Boychuk

Adam Pelech - Ryan Pulock

Devon Toews - Scott Mayfield

Starting Goaltender: Robin Lehner (Unconfirmed)