The Buffalo Sabres picked it up offensively just in time to stay close in their pursuit of a third consecutive playoff berth. The Tampa Bay Lightning's resurgent defensive play has helped the Sabres, too.
Buffalo looks to win its third straight Wednesday when it hosts the Lightning, winners of three in a row - the last two against teams the Sabres are chasing in the tightly bunched Eastern Conference.
The Sabres (34-28-11) had lost four in a row before last weekend, but totaled 13 goals in victories over Carolina and Toronto on Friday and Saturday. That matched their highest output in consecutive games this season.
Jason Pominville and Jochen Hecht each had a goal and two assists in Saturday's 6-2 win over the Maple Leafs. They are two of 10 Sabres who have scored in the last two games.
|Both the Sabres and Lightning have won three games in a row. Buffalo currently sits just three points away from the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. (AP Photo/Don Heupel)
Thomas Vanek isn't one of them. Buffalo's highest-paid player and third-leading scorer has only one goal and no assists in the past eight games, and saw just nine minutes of ice time against Toronto.
Along with the increased offense, goalie Ryan Miller has allowed just three goals on 60 shots in the last two contests as the Sabres have pulled closer in the battle for a postseason berth.
"(It's important) to get on a roll right now," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, whose team has reached the conference finals the last two seasons but suffered key losses in free agency last summer. "This is the time of year where you scoreboard watch and look at what the teams around you are doing."
The New York Rangers, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and Florida are jockeying with the Sabres for the final three playoff spots in the East.
"As long as everybody's logjammed, everybody has a chance," Miller said. "You've got to be the team that's dedicated night in and night out."
Despite sitting in last place in the East, the Lightning (29-35-8) have played a role in keeping things so close. Their last two wins have come against the Bruins and Rangers, the most recent a 3-0 victory over New York on Saturday.
Mike Smith, acquired from Dallas at the trade deadline, stopped 20 shots for his first shutout with the Lightning. He made 35 saves in a 3-1 win at Boston on Thursday.
"The whole theme, and it's gone on for a long time here, is we're defending very well," Lightning coach John Tortorella told the team's official Web site.
After allowing 3.4 goals per game in their first 46 contests, the Lightning have given up just 2.8 per game over the last two months, going 12-11-3 during that span.
Buffalo, though, has managed four goals twice against Tampa Bay in that stretch, and the Sabres are hoping to continue an impressive run of success against the Lightning. A win Wednesday would clinch the Sabres' second season sweep of Tampa Bay in the last three seasons.
They've won four straight against the Lightning and 10 of 11 since the NHL lockout ended in 2005. Miller has started all 11 games, and has a 10-1-0 career record and 2.33 goals-against average against Tampa Bay.
Smith has never faced the Sabres.