Despite owning the worst record in the Atlantic Division and third-worst in the Eastern Conference, the Buffalo Sabres are not a team to be taken lightly, as the Tampa Bay Lightning found out Tuesday in a 2-1 shootout loss at the First Niagara Center.
The Atlantic-leading Bolts will get an opportunity to erase that performance two days ago from their collective memory banks in tonight’s rematch at Amalie Arena. Tampa Bay, the NHL’s top scoring team, registered just two shots on goal in the first period against Buffalo and only mustered one goal.
“They’re a competitive team,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “I know they didn’t start the year off well, but they’re physical, they’re big, they’re strong. I think we’ve got to come out and start the game a lot better than we did last time, only two shots on net.”
The 9-14-2 Sabres have won six of their last seven games and three straight. Prior to this hot stretch, however, Buffalo was abysmal. The Sabres won only twice in 11 games in October. They started November just as poorly, their only win through the first seven games a shootout victory over Detroit.
“They had a tough start to the year, but they’ve won six of seven and might be the hottest team in the league right now,” said Bolts goalie Ben Bishop, who will start between the pipes tonight after Evgeni Nabokov got the call in Tuesday’s loss. “So, as you can see, they can be the worst team the first month and then they can be the best team in the league right now. That just shows you how much parity is in this league.”
Bishop said a better start will be a big key for the Lightning tonight.
“I think it’ll be important to get the lead on these guys,” he said. “They might change their game a little bit.”
The Lightning are 11-2-3 when scoring first.
Following Tuesday’s game, a couple Lightning players felt the team didn’t bring its best effort. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper didn’t necessarily agree with that sentiment on Thursday though.
“I think the guys played better than they’re giving themselves credit for,” Cooper said. “We’re used to scoring goals, so all of a sudden they think we’re not playing that well. But let’s give Buffalo a little bit of credit. They pinned us down for two to three periods. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be a little hungrier to score goals.”
Yesterday, Lightning Vice President and General Manager Steve Yzerman announced that 22-year-old forward Vladislav Namestnikov had been reassigned to the Bolts’ AHL affiliate in Syracuse.
Namestnikov played in Tampa Bay’s first 21 games in 2014-15, tallying three goals and four assists. But, the former first round pick (27th overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft had been a healthy scratch in three of the last five.
Cooper said he does not expect Namestnikov to stick with Syracuse for the remainder of the season.
“It’s a situation where if he’s going to be in and out of the lineup here, why not he get a situation to play games,” Cooper said. “He’s a phone call away.”
Rather than keeping him in Tampa Bay where he would be forced to sit periodically while the Lightning rotate forwards, Namestnikov can get regular game action in Syracuse. And the Lightning can keep guys in the lineup and playing without having so many healthy scratches.
“There’s points in the season when you’re healthy and there’s probably more points in the season where you’re not,” Cooper said. “We’re healthy; we have numbers. The same thing happened to (Cedric) Paquette a month ago, and now it’s happening to Vladdy.”
During Thursday’s morning skate, NHL rookie Jonathan Drouin was part of a line that included veterans Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow.
Cooper said he wants to experiment with different combinations on the final two lines to find the best fit. Brett Connolly and Cedric Paquette skated on a line centered by Valtteri Filppula.
“Sometimes you can have too many guys that need the puck on one line,” Cooper said. “Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you’ve got guys on a line that go get the skill guys the puck. There’s just different parameters that go into this, but you’re looking for a little bit of chemistry. I think you end up tinkering different ways.”
Drouin’s playmaking ability could potentially pair well with Boyle and Morrow’s ability to grind and play a physical brand of hockey.
At least, that’s what Cooper’s hoping.
“Jo’s somebody we feel needs the puck,” he said. “If those guys can get it to him, Jo can make plays. He’s been playing with different players, different lines throughout this year and I think he’s getting much more comfortable with the NHL game. He’s playing at a NHL level.”
The Lightning sport a 10-2-1 record at Amalie Arena this season. The Bolts have won four in a row at home.
“If we can go 10-2-1 every 13 games at home, I like our chances,” Cooper said.
The challenge is to maintain that high level of play at home throughout the remainder of the season.
“Extremely pleased with how things are going, just can’t hang your hat on that,” Cooper said. “We have to make sure we keep establishing and pulling points out of home ice.
“So far, so good.”