Buffalo Sabres (26-19-3) vs. Minnesota Wild (26-17-4)
Puck Drop: 9:00 PM EST | Xcel Energy Center | St. Paul, MN
Radio: WGR 550
SB Nation Wild Blog: Hockey Wilderness
Know Your Opponent
Last Game: 3-2 OT win vs. Flyers
Division Ranking: 3rd in Central Division
PP: 24.2% (11th)
PK: 79.5% (15th)
What to Watch
1. A Great Time to be a Sabres Fan
As a longtime Sabres viewer and Buffalonian, I can say with utmost confidence that this has been the best the team has looked in over a decade by far. Now while that’s easy to say and see by looking over the roster, it’s another thing for the team to go out there and prove it to the fans each and every night. And up to this point, prove it they have.
Before this road trip started, I would’ve been happy with four points out of eight, given that Buffalo had to face the top three teams in the Central Division, along with St. Louis who is fighting for their playoff lives. And sitting here going into the game against Minnesota, the Sabres have taken all three games, with three different goalies starting each of those matchups. The team is playing with a level of confidence not seen since Lindy Ruff was at the helm, and the scary thing is, they’re going to get even better. All four offensive lines have been contributing, while defensively Buffalo has improved enough that players like Dahlin and Power can confidently jump into the play and create offense.
If the Sabres want to have a shot at sneaking into the playoffs, every point in the last 33 games is going to make a difference. While they have seemingly exceeded expectations on the road trip already, going into the Xcel Energy Center on Saturday night and stealing two points would be the icing on the cake. The culture is finally shifting in Buffalo as the Sabres have put the league on notice that they aren’t just a pushover opponent, and that they can play with anyone. Who’s ready for meaningful games in March?
2. Keep the Momentum
The Sabres haven’t been perfect in the month of January this season, as they had a stretch of six games that saw them go 1-4-1, partially against opponents they should’ve/needed to beat. Since that stretch, Buffalo has rattled off five straight wins, scoring 20 goals while holding their opponents to just 12 goals. If the Sabres can beat the Wild for a second time this season (and this month), they’ll sweep the four game road trip, as well as increase their winning streak to six, with just one game left remaining before the All-Star break and a much needed rest.
Aside from just the team as a whole, many individual players have been on fire as of late too. After a slight “slump” (not really, people just like to overreact), Tage Thompson has points in six straight (3 Gs, 7 As) and has showed off his play making abilities to compliment the goals. Thompsons linemates are also on streaks of their own as Tuch has 9 points over seven games, while Skinner has 8 points over six games. But those are the players you’d expect that kind of production from, so let’s talk about two others…
First, we’ll start with Owen Power, who at 20 years old is playing other worldly. Held without a goal his first 42 games this season, Power has come alive during Buffalo’s trip out west. Starting with his OT winner in Dallas, the young defenseman has scored in three straight games, only adding to his confidence that was already boiling over. Power will have the opportunity to make it four straight against the Wild. Second, Victor Olofsson has been one of the most important Sabres over the past few weeks. He’s scored six goals in the past six games as well as 10 over the last 12, and has had even more scoring chances that could’ve inflated those numbers. Not bad for guy Sabres fans have been eager to trade over the past year. Oh and by the way, the last time Buffalo faced Minnesota, Olofsson put two past Fleury. Better keep your eye on 71, Flower.
3. Down to the Wire
As Buffalo makes their own playoff push, Minnesota is in for their own fight during the last half of the season. While currently in a playoff spot, the Wild are only one point ahead of the Avalanche who sit in a wild card spot and are being tailed closely by the Flames and Predators. Over the last 10 games, Minnesota has gone 4-4-2, so they will be looking to get back on track after starting the season off hot. Saturday night will be a big test to see which team has the most to give as points are at a premium given their spot in the standings.
Fortunately for Buffalo, the two injuries suffered on the road trip don’t look to be long term, however it will still likely be a game time decision on if Cozens or Samuelsson are in the lineup tonight. At worst Asplund and Clague, who have been solid in their own right, will only have to fill in tonight against the Wild before Buffalo has three days off. For the Wild, Ryan Hartman returns to the lineup after being scratched against the Flyers, but other than that Minnesota has no injury troubles.
Jeff Skinner – Tage Thompson – Alex Tuch
JJ Peterka – Rasmus Asplund – Jack Quinn
Casey Mittelstadt – Tyson Jost – Victor Olofsson
Kyle Okposo – Peyton Krebs – Zemgus Girgensons
Kale Clague – Rasmus Dahlin
Owen Power – Henri Jokiharju
Jacob Bryson – Ilya Lyubushkin
Goaltenders: Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (projected starter), Craig Anderson
Scratches: Eric Comrie
Injuries: Dylan Cozens, Mattias Samuelsson (either could play)
Kirill Kaprizov – Sam Steel – Mats Zuccarello
Jordan Greenway – Joel Eriksson Ek – Ryan Hartman
Marcus Foligno – Frederick Gaudreau – Matt Boldy
Mason Shaw – Connor Dewar – Ryan Reaves
Jacob Middleton – Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin – Mathew Dumba
Jon Merrill – Calen Addison
Goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury (projected starter), Filip Gustavsson
Scratches: Brandon Duhaime, Alex Goligoski