PANTHERS (16-10-9) at SABRES (14-21-3)
TV: FS-F, MSG-B, BELL TV
BUFFALO – The Buffalo Sabres will have defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen back in the lineup against the Florida Panthers on Friday.
Ristolainen missed the past two games with the flu and will be reunited on a pairing with rookie Nikita Zadorov. Ristolainen and Zadorov were first-round picks of the Sabres in the 2013 NHL Draft.
"I'm really excited. I like to play with him," Ristolainen said. "We both like to play the same style of game. We just enjoy [playing] with each other."
The Sabres are still without Tyler Myers (lower body). With Tyson Strachan back, putting Ristolainen and Zadorov back together was a natural fit.
"Our defense corps was a little bit in disarray for a while, and those two were probably our two shining lights," Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. "So we thought we'd spread it out for a little bit."
Ristolainen has three goals and four assists in 36 games and has averaged 20:06 of ice time per game.
Goalie Michal Neuvirth will make his 12th start. Neuvirth allowed six goals in 39 shots against the Detroit Red Wings in a 6-3 loss on Dec. 23.
"[Sabres goalie coach] Arturs Irbe's done a great job with him as far as talking and communicating with him that Jhonas [Enroth] is playing very well," Nolan said. "It's tough to get him in."
The Panthers are looking to end a two-game losing skid and start a six-game road trip against Buffalo. The three previous games between the Panthers and Sabres this season have been one-goal games.
"I think every game's a close game in the NHL nowadays," Panthers captain Willie Mitchell said. "You just look to have a good start. It's easier playing with the lead. I had a coach who said once, 'You can't win the game in the first 10, but you can sure let them know,' right? I do believe that. If you set the tone off the hop, it's really going to set the pace for your team's game the rest of the game and then also let the other team know that, 'All right, these guys are coming,' so that's what we'll look to do."
The Panthers could be without forward Tomas Fleischmann. He left the skate early Friday with an apparent injury.
"Well we're going to find out what's going to happen here this morning," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "Fleischmann left a little early so we're not sure if he's going to play and I'm going to make sure who we've got for the lines."
Gallant added that Brandon Pirri would return to the lineup against Buffalo regardless of Fleischmann's status. He was a healthy scratch for the past three games.
The Panthers will start Roberto Luongo and he has had a lot of success against Buffalo recently. In his past four starts against Buffalo, Luongo is 4-0-0 with three shutouts.
Here are the projected lineups:
Jonathan Huberdeau – Nick Bjugstad – Vincent Trocheck
Jussi Jokinen – Dave Bolland – Brad Boyes
Sean Bergenheim – Aleksander Barkov – Jimmy Hayes
Scottie Upshall – Derek MacKenzie – Brandon Pirri
Willie Mitchell – Dmitry Kulikov
Brian Campbell – Aaron Ekblad
Dylan Olsen – Erik Gudbranson
Scratched: Tomas Fleischmann
Injured: Tomas Kopecky (upper body), Shawn Thornton (lower body)
Matt Moulson – Zemgus Girgensons – Tyler Ennis
Brian Flynn – Mikhail Grigorenko – Chris Stewart
Nicolas Deslauriers – Johan Larsson – Drew Stafford
Cody Hodgson – Cody McCormick – Patrick Kaleta
Josh Gorges – Tyson Strachan
Nikita Zadorov –Rasmus Ristolainen
Andrej Meszaros – Mike Weber
Scratched: Andre Benoit
Injured: Brian Gionta (head), Tyler Myers (lower body), Torrey Mitchell (lower body), Marcus Foligno (hand)
Status report: Kopecky skated for the Panthers on Friday. He's missed the past two games with an upper-body injury… Myers skated with the Sabres and is looking to return to the lineup next week. He has missed the past five games.
Who's hot: Stewart has a point in five of the past six games… Bjugstad has a goal and an assist in the past three games.