SABRES (21-27-6) at FLYERS (23-20-9)
TV: 7 p.m. ET; MSG-B, BELL TV, CSN-PH, NHL.TV
PHILADELPHIA -- Two of the top rookies in the NHL will go head-to-head when the Buffalo Sabres take on the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center on Thursday.
Sabres center Jack Eichel is third among rookies with 16 goals and 36 points in 54 games.
He has nine points in his past nine games, and Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Eichel has gotten back on track after a bit of a slump in December.
"In the 30 to 45 game range he did [hit a wall]," Bylsma said. "I think it's the frequency of the games and the every-other-day aspect of playing hockey is the biggest adjustment. We saw that around the Christmas time, before Christmas. We've monitored [ice time] a little bit, he's gotten some rest."
Eichel said he's learning that the mental challenges of an NHL season are as tough to deal with as the physical.
"I don't think it's the grind of the games piling up, it's the frequency of games," he said. "You get a lot of back-to-backs, you're playing three in four days. There are days it can wear down on you. Just try to stay up mentally on that."
Shayne Gostisbehere of the Flyers leads rookie defensemen with nine goals and 28 points. He has two goals and 12 points during a nine-game point streak that is the longest by a rookie defenseman since Kevin Shattenkirk had points in nine straight during the 2010-11 season. He's also one game shy of the Flyers rookie record of 10 straight games with a point, set by Mikael Renberg in 1993-94.
Gostisbehere was with Lehigh Valley of the American Hockey League when the Flyers played the Sabres in October, and Bylsma said that changes the game plan pretty dynamically.
In 34 games with Gostisbehere in the lineup the Flyers are 16-12-6, averaging 2.53 goals per game and converting at 27.6 percent on the power play. In 18 games without him they are 7-8-3, averaging 2.00 goals per game and converting at 12.5 percent on the power play.
"The mere shot attempts this guy throws at the net is pretty amazing," Bylsma said. "The speed up the ice, his jumping in, his flair, it's a factor every time he steps on the ice, there's no question about that. Power play, he looks like he loves shooting the puck. He's delivering it to the cage, it's a hard shot, he's ripping it there. From the two times we played them earlier in the year it's a much different look."
Gostisbehere's strong play has gotten him Calder Trophy consideration. But he's more worried about getting the Flyers into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"It would be a pretty cool piece of history," he said. "But I don't think our team is about the individuality here. We're trying to make the playoffs; that's the main goal here."
To do that, and to help end a three-game losing streak (0-2-1), the Flyers will insert forwards R.J. Umberger and Jordan Weal in the lineup in place of forwards Matt Read and Scott Laughton. Umberger was a healthy scratch the past five games, Weal the past six. It will be Weal's second game with the Flyers since being acquired Jan. 6 from the Los Angeles Kings.
"There's lineup changes because we didn't play well here the other night at home (a 4-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday)," coach Dave Hakstol said. "As a team we didn't like our overall effort. Those are the two guys that are out tonight."
The Sabres will have lineup changes as well. Forward Justin Bailey, recalled from Rochester of the AHL on Wednesday, will make his NHL debut Thursday. A Buffalo native, he said his mother and grandmother will be in Philadelphia for the game.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound forward has 10 goals and 23 points in 47 AHL games, but had his best game of the season Saturday with two goals and an assist against Binghamton.
"Reports started about a month and a half ago and continuing the last couple weeks, Justin using his speed and size to be effective up and down the wing," Bylsma said. "Starting to learn to get on pucks, hold pucks and be a presence in the offensive zone with that big, physical size. The two games I watched him, his speed up the wing and driving to the net was evident. … He's been able to show and prove he can be effective with that speed and use that big size to his advantage and be a factor. Be that big and be able to skate that well, he's been able to show that and hopefully something he can bring."
Here are the projected lineups:
Nicolas Deslauriers - Ryan O'Reilly - Jamie McGinn
Evander Kane - Sam Reinhart - Brian Gionta
Marcus Foligno - Jack Eichel - Matt Moulson
Daniel Catenacci - David Legwand - Justin Bailey
Zach Bogosian - Mark Pysyk
Josh Gorges - Rasmus Ristolainen
Mike Weber - Cody Franson
Injured: Johan Larsson (lower body), Zemgus Girgensons (lower body), Cody McCormick (blood clots), Tyler Ennis (upper body)
Scratched: Carlo Colaiacovo, Jake McCabe
Jakub Voracek - Claude Giroux - Wayne Simmonds
Sam Gagner - Nick Cousins - Brayden Schenn
Michael Raffl - Jordan Weal - R.J. Umberger
Chris VandeVelde - Pierre-Edouard Bellemare - Ryan White
Michael Del Zotto - Shayne Gostisbehere
Nick Schultz - Mark Streit
Brandon Manning - Radko Gudas
Injured: Sean Couturier (lower body)
Scratched: Matt Read, Scott Laughton, Evgeny Medvedev
Status report: The Sabres held an optional morning skate. … Lehner will start for the third straight game and fifth time in the past six. … Bylsma said Larsson could play Friday against the Montreal Canadiens. Girgensons could return Sunday against the Colorado Avalanche. Neither player made the trip to Philadelphia. Each is considered day-to-day. … With Neuvirth returning to the lineup, goaltender Anthony Stolarz was sent to Lehigh Valley of the AHL. Neuvirth had missed the past five games because of a lower-body injury. … Mason will start his season-high sixth straight game.
Who's hot: Reinhart has four goals during a three-game goal streak. … Simmonds has seven goals and three assists in his past eight games.