The surging Buffalo Sabres can reach .500 for the first time since the final game of the 2012-13 season with a win against the Florida Panthers on Thursday at BB&T Center.
The Sabres finished 21-21-6 in the lockout-shortened season before placing 30th in the NHL standings each of the past two seasons.
The Sabres did not hold a morning skate Thursday. They enter the game winners of four of five for the first time since December 2014 and are off to their best start since 2011-12 after losing 51 games in each of the past two seasons.
"There's pretty big significance in it," coach Dan Bylsma told the Sabres website Wednesday. "Our start was 2-6 and we missed some opportunities to win some games. Now you're looking at going 6-4 and 6-4 to get back to .500 after 30 games."
Buffalo continued to roll with an impressive 4-1 win at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday. Another victory could also move the Sabres to as high as fourth place in the Atlantic Division.
"I think it's a big game," Bylsma said. "I don't want to keep talking about big games in November, but it is a big opportunity for us to get a win on the road and get back to .500."
Although the Sabres have lost eight of nine to the Panthers and haven't defeated them on the road since Oct. 25, 2013, it's a different team even from the one that lost 3-2 to Florida at BB&T Center on Oct. 15.
"When you have success you have to play good defensive hockey," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said in video posted on the Panthers website. "We did it last year, we were a better defensive team, and Buffalo is doing it this year. This year they're playing good defensive hockey and they're shutting things down, but they're scoring some goals too. They're a good hockey team."
Florida's 4-3 win Tuesday against the Calgary Flames ended a five-game losing streak and was the first in a stretch that includes seven of eight games at home.
"We lost five in a row there and were under .500 for the first time this year, so we knew it was a big game for us," Panthers forward Rocco Grimaldi said. "It was definitely a must-win for us. I know how demoralizing it would have been if we didn't get those two points. It was a huge two points for us, and now we have to move forward and look forward to Buffalo tonight."
Goalie Roberto Luongo will start for the Panthers. Luongo ended a three-game losing streak Tuesday and has allowed at least three goals in six of his past eight starts, but he's won seven straight against the Sabres with a 1.00 goals-against average.
Goalie Linus Ullmark will start for the Sabres.
Here are the projected lineups:
Matt Moulson - Ryan O'Reilly - Brian Gionta
Tyler Ennis - Jack Eichel - Jamie McGinn
Johan Larsson - Zemgus Girgensons - Sam Reinhart
Nicolas Deslauriers - David Legwand - Marcus Foligno
Josh Gorges - Rasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabe - Cody Franson
Carlo Colaiacovo - Mark Pysyk
Injured: Mike Weber (lower body), Evander Kane (knee), Robin Lehner (ankle), Zach Bogosian (lower body), Cody McCormick (blood clot)
Scratched: Tim Schaller
Jonathan Huberdeau - Nick Bjugstad - Jaromir Jagr
Jussi Jokinen - Vincent Trocheck - Reilly Smith
Brandon Pirri - Dave Bolland - Rocco Grimaldi
Quinton Howden - Derek MacKenzie - Garrett Wilson
Brian Campbell - Aaron Ekblad
Willie Mitchell - Erik Gudbranson
Dmitry Kulikov - Alex Petrovic
Injured: Aleksander Barkov (hand)
Scratched:?????????Steven Kampfer, Shawn Thornton
Status report: The Panthers are playing their same lineup from their win Tuesday. … Barkov skated with teammates for the first time since missing the past three weeks with a broken bone in his hand. "It's getting better every day," Barkov told the Sun-Sentinel. "I can shoot more and shoot harder; I could pass; I could skate better. I just need to gain the game's pace." Bjugstad has filled in for Barkov on Florida's top line. "I feel good and hope to be back as soon as possible," Barkov said. "I hate missing games and it's tough to watch your own team play. I just try to learn watching the games."
Who's hot: Eichel has six points (three goals, three assists) in his past five games and is second on the Sabres with nine points. … Ennis is on his first three-game point streak since Jan. 17-27, 2015. … Buffalo has killed 13 of its opponents' past 14 power plays. … Huberdeau has three assists in his past four games. … Trocheck has two goals in three games and is one from tying his career high of seven set in 50 games last season.