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First-place Bruins battle Northeast-rival Sabres

by Matthew Mankiewich /
SABRES (20-20-5) at BRUINS (26-13-7)


Last 10 --
Buffalo 6-3-1; Boston 6-2-2

Season series --
They've split the first four, each taking a home game and a road game, the last a wild 7-6 New Year's Day home win for the Sabres in which Drew Stafford not only had his second hat trick in as many games against Boston, but scored his third goal with 28 seconds left in regulation to tie it, then scored again in the shootout. Unfortunately, Stafford will likely not be able to go for a three-peat due to a groin injury.

Big story --
Both teams have been playing well as of late, division-leading Boston nearly doubling its per-game offensive output month on month from December, the Sabres getting it done on the power play. That's where the similarities end between the Northeast Division rivals, though, as the Bruins are playing with the big boys at the top of the conference while the Sabres struggle to get back in the playoff picture, eight points behind eighth-seeded Atlanta.

Team scope:

Sabres -- The Sabres would probably not prefer to take on the Bruins without Stafford. Seven of his 15 goals are against the Bruins. He also has quite an impact in general. In the 30 games he's played, the Sabres average 2.73 goals per game and convert at a 20.3-percent clip on the power play. Those numbers drop to 2.2 goals per game and 14 percent in the 15 games he missed due to a shoulder injury. He only lasted two shifts in Tuesday's 2-1 overtime win over the Canadiens.

What impressed coach Lindy Ruff that night, however, was the way the Sabres continued to work after the setback, eventually leading to Jason Pominville's overtime game-winner.

"Every game means a lot," Ruff said. "We battled hard through the road trip, we came home, we've played some good hockey, we played a couple periods we'd like to throw out, but we know it's going to take everything to keep winning, especially with Staff and Derek out at the same time, it's going to be a little bit of a struggle to put the puck in the net. I think we need more guys to contribute and I think the jubilation was the fact that we were able to fight through and win that game. We had some games earlier in the year where that might have turned into a loss."

Bruins --
Ironically, the last game the Bruins lost to the Sabres marked their offensive turnaround. The six-goal performance kicked off a January where they've averaged four goals per game, up from 2.33 their last nine games in December. They've also matched or broken the six-goal mark three times in their last five games, including a 7-0 blowout of the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday.

The swing back to Raleigh to complete the home-and-home wasn't as easy, as Milan Lucic's power-play goal in the third period eked out a 3-2 win. It was the B's fourth man-up goal in the last two games.

"I knew they would have a pushback," said goaltender Tim Thomas, who won his fourth straight start to improve to 22-4-6 and ratchet up the Hart Trophy talk. "I thought we would handle it better than we did. But in the long run, we handled it well, because we found a way to win."

Who's hot --
Both teams have played well with the man advantage, as Buffalo's power play has generated five of the Sabres' eight goals in their last three games. Thomas Vanek has a point on four of those to go with his 6 points in three games and 12 in his last eight, a stretch that also started that New Year's night in Buffalo. … Zdeno Chara had his first career hat trick in the Bruins' first game against the Hurricanes, part of a 9-point tear in his last seven games. Mark Recchi picked up a pair of helpers Tuesday and has 10 points in his last 12. Brad Marchand has 4 goals in his last seven.

Injury report --
The latest on Stafford is an official day-to-day status, and a probable two-game layover as he is expected to miss Friday's front end of a home-and-home with the Islanders. He may be ready for the back end on Sunday in Nassau Coliseum. … Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference had been expected to return from a shoulder injury Tuesday night, but missed his third straight game.

Stat pack --
Tuukka Rask will likely get the start Thursday, but it's impossible to think the Bruins would be where they are without Thomas, which to many people defines a Hart Trophy candidate. He's one behind Carey Price and Jonas Hiller in overall wins but his 1.83 goals-against average leads the League, as does his .945 save percentage and seven shutouts.

Puck drop --
"I think the confidence is there. They know that in the third period, we've been a good team. The fact that we were tied and it was 20 minutes that were going to decide the game, our guys felt confident they could go out there and be a better team." -- Bruins coach Claude Julien in the Boston Globe on his team's success in the third period, scoring a League-high 59 goals and allowing a League-low 26

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