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Improved Senators host desperate Sabres

by Matthew Mankiewich
SABRES (31-29-8) at SENATORS (36-25-8)

TV: CBC, RDS (HD), MSG-Buffalo

LAST 10 : Buffalo 7-2-1, Ottawa 7-3-0

Season Series: It's the last meeting of the regular season between these Northeast Division rivals, though the game will have little impact on the division race, as the Sabres trail the Senators by 10 points and first-place Boston by 13. Buffalo took the first two back in November and the Senators the next three in the final two weeks of 2011. It will be a little more balanced series no matter the outcome of this game, as the Sabres took five of six last season and the Sens five of six in each of the previous two campaigns.

Big Story: A 9-3-1 run after losing seven straight has opened up some space between the Senators and the rest of the Eastern Conference pack. They sit solidly in seventh, eight points ahead of the eighth-place Capitals. The Sabres have worked their way back into playoff contention by winning seven of 10, but they dropped two of their last three, a stumble they could ill afford as they hang back two points behind the Caps.

Team Scope:

Sabres: It's no secret that good teams usually have strong third periods. On Thursday the Sabres got a quick lesson from the Bruins, as Johnny Boychuk and David Krejci took a 1-1 tie after two and made it a 3-1 win in regulation.

It was nothing new for the Bruins, who own the third period as a rule, outscoring opponents 86-51 compared to the Sabres spotting their opponents 64 goals to scoring 48.

"It shows you why they are where they're at right now, and we're where we're at," captain Jason Pominville told the Buffalo News. "They stuck with it. They were patient. They didn't really give up much. We had to maybe open up a little bit, and they capitalized on one.

"Once they got the lead, we had to press and try to make difference. They made a play and scored again. It's a good example of being patient and not forcing it. They end up winning a game because of it."

Senators: They've ridden some strong offensive performances to where they are now, and when opportunity knocked against Martin Biron and the Rangers on Thursday night, a whole bunch of Senators who hadn't gotten on the board in a while finally did in a 4-1 win at Scotiabank Place.

Zack Smith ended a 13-game goal drought and Nick Foligno picked up his second in 26 games as 10 Senators logged points, while the defense made goalie Ben Bishop's home debut a triumphant one. More importantly, though, they completed their season series with the Eastern Conference leaders winning three of four.

"Some big goals by different guys, just a good complete team win," Jason Spezza said to the Ottawa Citizen. "It's a good team, trying to come back on us. We played more in their end in the third period than our own and that's usually the best way to play defense."

Who's Hot: Spezza is on fire, with nine goals and 22 points in his last 13 games. His 73 points lead the team. Not far behind is goals leader Milan Michalek, with nine goals and 18 points over the stretch, giving him a team-leading 32 tallies. … Sabres scoring leader Jason Pominville broke a six-game oh-fer streak with two goals and an assist in his last two. Thomas Vanek is starting to heat up a bit as well with a goal and two assists over the same time span.

Injury Report: And it's Vanek who caused the most concern among the Sabres. He took a hard hit from Boychuk in the Boston game and left with an upper-body injury, but coach Lindy Ruff left room for optimism.

"Thomas is OK, just a little bit sore. He's doing OK," coach Lindy Ruff told the Sabres' website.

When pressed about Vanek's availability Saturday, he replied, "I can't answer that question right now. I guess it will all depend on how he's feeling tomorrow."

For the Senators, goalie Craig Anderson (hand) has been making progress according to coach Paul MacLean but remains out indefinitely. Forward Jesse Winchester (concussion) skated in a full practice Friday and said it was the best he'd felt since the injury but is not pushing the timetable for a return.

Stat Pack: Foligno's goal was his first against a goalie since Dec. 30. The two goals he had in between were empty-netters. … Jared Cowen played the role of unsung defenseman over his 20:48 of ice time against the Rangers -- no points and a plus-1 but the second star of the game thanks to some solid physical play. … The Sabres will also be relieved to see only two more back-to-back sets on the schedule out of their NHL-leading 21. They're 12-7 on the front end, but 6-8-5 in the second game. They have averaged just two goals in their last six road games and their 62 goals in 33 away games is at the bottom of the NHL.

Puck Drop: "I think a lot of guys' confidence is up a little bit. I think a lot of it kind of stems from us playing a system that has been consistent. We haven't changed too much of our neutral zone or forecheck or D-zone coverage in the last month and a half, two months and that's been the difference." -- Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller on the team's recent resurgence

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