TAMPA, Fla. --
When the Buffalo Sabres
meet the Tampa Bay Lightning
on Monday at the Tampa Bay Times Fourm, on display will be a case of two teams heading in opposite directions.
Buffalo, two points behind Washington for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, has put together an enviable run at the postseason, going 9-2-3 over its last 14 games.
Tampa Bay, however, has fallen off the playoff trail, going 1-4-1 and dropping three of four during its seven-game homestand.
Adding to the Lightning's woes is the loss of two additional key players, Adam Hall
and Ryan Shannon
, bringing the total to eight regulars sidelined.
"I have a choice: Either I start crying, which I felt like, or I just look at it like it's ridiculous and just go with it," Lightning coach Guy Boucher
said. "We've got two lines of AHL guys, but they work hard and they give us a chance to stay in games. The reality is everyone has got their own pace of development and we want to respect that."
Although Boucher's preference often is to play seven defensemen, usually it's a decision, rather than a mandate.
"I've got no choice," Boucher said. "I don't have 12 forwards. Let's not kid ourselves."
Twelve forwards or not, Monday's task appears to be a formidable one for the Lightning.
"We know what's going on," Boucher said. "They're on a high, they're playing terrific. They're bouncing at the perfect time and they're making a push and their game doesn't have any fog right now. They have speed and scoring ability on each line. Goaltender is playing incredible. They are one of the top teams in the League right now in terms of performance."
If Boucher looks at the Buffalo bench with some envy, he might be forgiven; earlier in the month the Lightning were just two points from the eighth spot, which is precisely where Buffalo is now.
"It's extremely frustrating to be right there and then lose all these guys," Boucher said. "It's very tough, but they have been handling it like men and it will pay off."
For Tampa Bay, though, the pay-off will have to be in the future.
"We all understand where we are," said forward Martin St. Louis
. "When you are in the heart of the season and things happen, I think you're counted on as veteran leadership, but when it comes down to this sort of do-or-die situation, you have to look at yourself and see what you can do to pull us an inch closer. If you're waiting to look at somebody all the time, it's not going to happen."
The Sabres, on the other hand, are focused on what they have to do to make the playoffs and have gotten some breaks going their way, especially Sunday, when Winnipeg, with whom they currently are tied, and Washington, who they trail, both lost.
"There's always pressure making the playoffs, but we got a break last night when both those teams lost," Buffalo rookie Marcus Foligno
said. "That's huge for us. It's about capitalizing on chances and we have a chance tonight against Tampa Bay."
Veteran Sabres coach Lindy Ruff
, who has seen his share of battles for the playoff, said, "We have to go game-by-game. We've won our share and we'll have to win more than our share down the stretch to get in."