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Bolts, Sabres ready to finish season series

by Pete Jensen
LIGHTNING (44-24-11) at SABRES (40-29-10)


Last 10: Tampa Bay 6-2-2; Buffalo 6-2-2.

Season series: Tuesday night's clash marks the fourth and final meeting of the regular season between these Eastern Conference foes. Tampa Bay took the first two games of the season series, but Buffalo's offense erupted in the most recent showdown, a 7-4 Sabres' victory on Feb. 8 at St. Pete Times Forum. Sean Bergenheim and Vincent Lecavalier scored two goals apiece for the Lightning in the game, but Sabres winger Drew Stafford stole the show, netting his third of four hat tricks this season.

Big story: Tampa Bay storms into Tuesday's game at HSBC Arena on a five-game winning streak, having already clinched a playoff berth last Thursday night against Pittsburgh. The Sabres are thriving as well with four wins in five games, but Buffalo still has work left to do in order to punch their ticket to the postseason for the second consecutive year. Buffalo desperately needs a win Tuesday night at home to remain in prime position to secure one of the final three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

Team Scope:

Lightning: Only a few weeks ago, the Bolts were sinking in the standings, in the midst of a rough four-game losing streak. But Tampa Bay has since responded with a memorable five-game winning streak, securing the franchise’s first playoff berth since the 2006-07 season.

Perhaps the most defining win of the season for Tampa Bay came on Sunday, as Mike Smith's 31-save gem helped the Bolts upend the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, 2-0, at the United Center.

"I felt very patient," Smith told the St. Pete Times. "Every win is rewarding, but the defending champion; when you beat a team like that, it's a little bit more rewarding."

Smith started over Dwayne Roloson, who sat the second leg of a back-to-back road trip. Vincent Lecavalier scored a power-play goal in the first period, but Tampa Bay's captain left the game after being struck by a high-stick by Chicago's Michael Frolik in the second period. However, the Bolts overcame adversity and locked up a signature road victory after Nate Thompson scored an empty-net goal in the waning moments.

"I'm real proud of our guys' fight lately," coach Guy Boucher said. "We've won our last five game in all five different ways. That's what I like about the way we've done things lately."

Sabres: Ryan Miller has been one of the most reliable goaltenders in the League throughout the course of his career with Buffalo. But when Miller went down with an upper body injury on Mar. 29 against Toronto, coach Lindy Ruff turned to 22-year-old Jhonas Enroth, with his team's playoff hopes on the line.

A week later, Enroth has been selected the NHL's Third Star of the Week, after Buffalo picked up five of a possible six points last week. The rookie netminder locked down on the New York Rangers for his first career shutout last Wednesday, and with Sunday’s win over Carolina, the rookie improved to 7-2-2 on the season.

"It's huge," Ruff told the Buffalo News. "I'm not going to sidestep that one. It was a big win for us [in Raleigh]. They win, and it's a lot different scenario in the standings. Us winning, that gave us a little bit of an edge again."

Who's hot: Sabres leading goal-scorer Drew Stafford has 4 points in his last two games, including two goals in the team's OT loss to Washington last Friday. Enroth registered a 2-0-1 record, with a 1.94 goals-against-average, last week for Buffalo in relief of Miller. … Martin St. Louis is second in the NHL with 94 points on the season, and has been a consistent force in the offensive zone for the Bolts as of late, compiling 6 goals and 13 assists in his last 14 games.

Injury report: Miller (upper body) has missed the last three games for Buffalo, and remains questionable. Forwards Mike Grier (knee) and Jochen Hecht (upper body) missed Sunday's game against Carolina and are questionable as well. Derek Roy (quadriceps), Patrick Kaleta (knee), and Jordan Leopold (hand) remain out indefinitely for the Sabres. … Lecavalier (facial laceration) underwent an eye examination on Monday, after being high-sticked in the right eye during Sunday's game. Lecavalier received three stitches, but has no structural damage to the eye. The 30-year old center is listed as day-to-day and will be a game-time decision for the Bolts on Tuesday night in Buffalo.

Stat pack: On Sunday night, rookie defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani notched the overtime winner – the first tally of his NHL career – in Buffalo's 2-1 win over Carolina. Gragnani is the first player in franchise history whose first NHL goal was an overtime winner. The last time an NHL player recorded his first career goal in OT, Rangers' forward Mats Zuccarello lit the lamp against those same Hurricanes on Jan. 5, 2011.

Puck drop: With only three regular season games remaining for both teams, Tuesday night’s contest in western New York will have tremendous playoff implications. Because the Rangers rallied for a 4-3 victory over the Bruins on Monday night, the Sabres currently occupy the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, one point behind New York with a game in hand. Buffalo needs a win to jump the Rangers in the standings in pursuit of a playoff spot. The Lightning will battle for playoff positioning, as they trail Pittsburgh by one point for fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

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