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Bolts go for third-straight win against last-place Buffalo

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

On paper, the Tampa Bay Lightning are heavy favorites to defeat Buffalo tonight at Amalie Arena.

The Lightning have been near-unbeatable of late, winning six of their last seven games to regain the top spot in the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division.

The Sabres, on the other hand, are reeling, losing six consecutive games and 10 of their last 11.

Games, however, are never played on paper.

The Bolts will have to guard against overconfidence against a Buffalo team looking to put an end to its recent skid.

“We have to play our game. We can’t change a thing,” said Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop, who will make his 32nd start of the season tonight versus Buffalo. “If you don’t play teams as strongly as you’re used to, they’re going to beat you. The parity in this league is too good. These guys went on, I think, a [six wins in seven games streak] earlier, so we have to be ready.

“We don’t want to be the ones that break their streak.”

Buffalo currently occupies last place in the Atlantic Division. The Sabres are one point ahead of Carolina in the Eastern Conference basement.

“We know Buffalo’s always a tough team to play against,” Lightning forward Ondrej Palat said. “We can’t really look at the standings and stuff like that. Always when we play against them, it’s a tough game, and I expect tonight to be a tough game too.”

One of Buffalo’s 14 victories this season came against the Lightning in the first meeting between the two teams on December 2, a 2-1 shootout win in Buffalo.

The Bolts rebounded two days later with a 5-0 shutout of the Sabres at home.

On New Year’s Eve, Tampa Bay was a 5-1 winner in Buffalo, kick-starting a successful recently-completed road trip in which the Lightning finished 3-1-0, capped by an important 4-2 victory against divisional rival Montreal.

“We have to play like we did against Montreal and Ottawa,” said Palat, who had eight assists on the four-game road trip. “If we do, we’ll get a win tonight.”

Tonight’s meeting will be the fourth of five times Tampa Bay and Buffalo will play this season. The first four games have all been played within a span of 39 days.

They’ll meet for the final time March 3 at Amalie Arena.

“Obviously, we know them a little bit better than a team we didn’t play a lot,” Palat said. “We know what we can expect, and we’re going to go with that.”

SHORT-LIVED HOMECOMING

Tonight’s game against Buffalo offers the Lightning a respite at home before hitting the road again for two more games away from Amalie Arena – Monday, January 12 at Philadelphia and Tuesday, January 13 at Boston.

The Bolts just completed a four-games-in-eight-days road trip.

“It’s one game, so we have to take care of business when we’re only home for one game,” Bishop said.

Despite playing just the single home game, the Lightning have actually had an extended time in the bay area. The team returned to Tampa late Tuesday night and took Wednesday off. The Bolts practiced Thursday ahead of Friday’s game and will spend all day Saturday and part of the day Sunday at home before boarding a charter for Philadelphia Sunday afternoon.

“Being home for almost a week is really nice,” Bishop said. “It’s just the one game, but you have the last couple of days off and then Saturday and Sunday off, so that’s really nice anytime you can get a bunch of days off at home like that.”

POWER-PLAY MAGIC

A new-look Lightning power play scored two goals in six opportunities at Montreal, utilizing a lineup that included most of the Bolts’ offensive firepower.

Against the Canadiens, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper trotted out the Triplets line combined with Steven Stamkos in the hole and Anton Stralman at the point.

“I think (Stralman) directs traffic,” Cooper said. “To put Stammer in the hole and right around the net, I think that’s where he’s best. He clearly draws a little bit more attention when he’s out there.”

Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov set up the Bolts’ first power-play score against Montreal, faking a slap shot from the left circle and firing a cross-ice pass for Tyler Johnson on the back post.

On the second PP goal, Johnson and Palat were waiting at the net to shove home a rebound off a shot from Kucherov, Johnson getting credit for the goal.

Expect to see more of this high-scoring power-play unit in the future.

“We were struggling on the power play, so sometimes when you get into those situations, it forces your hand,” Cooper said. “Probably if I was a better coach, I would have done this earlier, but I didn’t.”

NESTEROV, MORROW IN

Cooper indicated recent AHL call-up Nikita Nesterov would get his third NHL start tonight on the blue line against Buffalo. Also, Brenden Morrow will return to his spot alongside Brian Boyle on the Bolts’ fourth line.

“You bring Nesterov up, he’s got to get in at some point,” Cooper said. “You can’t just have him sit here and not play. You talk about improving, he’s new in the NHL. We’ve got to get him some games, so he’s going back in tonight.”

Forward J.T. Brown and defenseman Mark Barberio are healthy scratches tonight.

“We’re fully healthy. By no means is this a demotion or you’re coming out because you’re not playing well,” Cooper said. “All our guys are playing well. We just have to keep cycling guys through because, at some point, injuries or things are going to happen, and you need these guys ready.”

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