SABRES (14-25-3) at LIGHTNING (26-12-4)
TV: MSG-B, SUN
TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning are back atop the Eastern Conference standings after going 3-1-0 on a four-game road trip that covered the past nine days.
The Lightning (26-12-4) make a quick stop at Amalie Arena to play the Buffalo Sabres (14-25-3) on Friday before going back on the road for a back-to-back against the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said it's important to continue to win games on home ice.
"We look at this game [against the Sabres] as a must-win really," Stamkos said. "[Buffalo] is going through a tough stretch right now so we want to take advantage of this game at home before we have to head back out on the road."
Stamkos said the Lightning's strong performance on the road trip has the team in a strong spot. The road trip featured a 5-1 win against Buffalo on New Year's Eve, a 4-2 win against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday and a 4-2 win against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday.
"It's always good to beat some good teams in their rinks," Stamkos said. "If you want to be successful in this League you have to win on the road against the top teams."
The line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov has continued to be one of the hottest in the NHL during the past month. Those players have combined for seven goals and 24 points in the past four games.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said the success of the line is deeper than the simple explanation of good chemistry.
"Chemistry is the key word, but I think it goes beyond that," Cooper said. "Guys genuinely get along off the ice and that relationship really shows on the ice. Johnson and Palat have played together a lot over the years and they just know where each other is. Kucherov has fit in seamlessly; he plays at their speed and they play the same type of game."
The Sabres are playing the second half of a back-to-back after a 5-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday. The Sabres have lost their past six games and are 0-2-1 against the Lightning this season.
Cooper said he expects a better effort from Buffalo on Friday and hopes his team comes to play.
"Regardless of who you are playing, the first game back is a tough one," Cooper said. "I know games we've come back and were rested up and laid an egg. It happens. It's 82 games and you have to come to play every night and let the chips fall."
Sabres goalie Michal Neuvirth is expected to get the start and will be looking for his first win since Nov. 18.
Here are the projected lineups:
Matt Moulson - Zemgus Girgensons - Tyler Ennis
Brian Flynn - Philip Varone - Drew Stafford
Cody Hodgson - Mikhail Grigorenko - Chris Stewart
Cody McCormick - Tim Schaller - Nicolas Deslauriers
Josh Gorges - Tyler Myers
Nikita Zadorov - Rasmus Ristolainen
Mike Weber - Tyson Strachan
Scratched: Andre Benoit, Andrej Meszaros, Patrick Kaleta
Injured: Brian Gionta (head), Torrey Mitchell (lower body), Marcus Foligno (hand)
Alex Killorn - Steven Stamkos - Brett Connolly
Ondrej Palat - Tyler Johnson - Nikita Kucherov
Cedric Paquette - Valtteri Filppula - Ryan Callahan
Brenden Morrow - Brian Boyle - Jonathan Drouin
Anton Stralman - Victor Hedman
Matthew Carle - Nikita Nesterov
Jason Garrison - Andrej Sustr
Scratched: Mark Barberio, J.T. Brown
Injured: Radko Gudas (knee)
Status report: Nesterov continues to get the nod as he and Barberio are competing to be the full-time replacement for Gudas, who will miss the rest of the regular season. … Stafford missed the past two games after the birth of his child but is expected to be back in the lineup.
Who's hot: Johnson has four goals and four assists in his past four games. … Varone scored his first two goals of the season Thursday.