Saturday’s contest marks the end of a season-long, seven-game homestand in which the Tampa Bay Lightning have left their coaches pleasantly surprised with a 4-2-0 mark heading into their final game of that stretch.
It is also the Lightning’s first half of back-to-back games, while their opponent, the Buffalo Sabres, are closing out their second game in as many nights. The Sabres traveled from Sunrise, Florida late Friday evening after earning their second win of the season, 3-1, versus the Florida Panthers.
“With Buffalo playing last night, you want to make sure you go in the first 5-10 minutes and jump on them early and make sure we dictate the base of the game,” Ryan Malone said. “If we do that, come the end of the game we may have the results that we want.”
The 6-5 overtime topper against the Blackhawks Thursday left the Lightning with a much-needed boost of confidence, but now Tampa Bay must put their record and recent success in the rearview mirror as they gear-up for the Sabres, who look to start streaking in the win column.
“All we remember is we played Buffalo once and we had to grind the game out in overtime to get two points,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s one thing you can’t do, and that’s look at the standings. No team can just sit here and say we’re going to give a half-hearted effort.”
The Sabres, who have youngest team in the league, can be looked at as inexperienced, yet that creates problems in itself. A youthful roster means you may not know what to expect and according to Cooper it’s “ultimately hard to prepare for.”
There’s another common denominator, these division rivals both need to get two points where they can. Each most likely believes they can steal two points from the other and with the Bolts’ schedule only getting tighter in November, Saturday’s game will have a heavy impact moving forward.
HEADS UP ON HEDMAN
After opting for a maintenance day yesterday, Victor Hedman confirmed that he’s feeling just fine.
“I felt good,” Hedman said. “It was good to get a maintenance day yesterday and get on the ice today and get ready for tonight.”
Last game Hedman took a hard shot off his foot, but completed the game, adding a goal minutes after the block.
The back-to-back game scenario presents an opportunity for the Lightning’s most recent healthy scratches to get some reps in this weekend.
“We’ve had some guys who’ve been sitting out and we’ve got some games coming up, so we’ve got to get these guys in,” Cooper said. “Our schedule tightens up so much in November, so that’s what we’re doing tonight.”
Keith Aulie and Mark Barberio will replace Andrej Sustr and P.C. Labrie as the Bolts go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
“It’s good to get back in the game, it’s been a little while,” Aulie said. “As a player you don’t want to sit out, but at the same time it’s a team game and we’ve been playing pretty well lately, so I just have to go back in there and play well.”
Coach stressed the importance of consistent play, no matter which team the Lightning face, in his post-morning skate press conference
Practice has presented the best opportunity to shake-off the rust and there is a mental component too - the pair must try to not over compensate for the lack of time they have played in the last nine games.
“You just have to focus on the things you know you can do and you’ve done since you were a little kid,” Aulie said. “That’s my whole mindset tonight, just come in with a clear mind and do the things I know I can do.”
Barberio, has not played since the season opener, while Aulie’s last action with Tampa Bay was in the last game they played versus the Sabres in Buffalo.
ODDS ‘N ENDS
Ben Bishop will be between the pipes Saturday for the Lightning, while Anders Lindback gets his third start of the season Sunday versus the Panthers in their second half of back-to-back games.
The Sabres, who’ve had four different teenagers start a game in a Buffalo sweater this season, is the most by any team since the 1995-96 season. Their roster has also seen the fewest amount of combined NHL games all-time out of any team in the league.