With three games remaining over the next four days leading into a bye week for the Buffalo Sabres, it can be hard not to look ahead to Saturday and Sunday. That's when the Sabres will welcome St. Louis and Chicago, two perrenial contenders from the Central Division, to KeyBank Center on back-to-back days.
Buffalo's opponent on Thursday night also hails the Central Division, albeit with a bit less luster. Yet, despite their poor record, Dan Bylsma cautioned against overlooking the Colorado Avalanche.
"This is a team that's very, very scary and dangerous to me to look past and look at maybe where they're at in the standings," Bylsma said.
Video: BYLSMA: Pregame Interview
Bylsma went on to list some of the well-known players who comprise the Colorado roster, household names among NHL fans like Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Tyson Barrie. These are the same players who helped lead Colorado to a 112-point campaign and a first-place finish in the Central Division just three seasons ago.
Ryan O'Reilly was a part of that team, which is why he too has been surprised at the Avalanche's current predicament. Colorado sits last in the NHL with 32 points, 13 points behind the next-worst team in Arizona. Colorado's goal differential is minus-75, by far the worst mark in the League.
"It's surprising," O'Reilly said. "You've got a lot of great players over there. I guess a lot of bad bounces, I haven't been watching them too much but to see them that low in the standings, it's surprising. I think those years happen. I don't know enough of what's going on but it's unfortunate for them. On the outside looking in, we have to find a way to win this game."
Video: Preview: COL at BUF (2/16/17)
The Avalanche did win back-to-back games for just the third time this season earlier in February, but they've since lost four in a row. The Sabres are coming off of a 3-2, come-from-behind win in Ottawa on Tuesday and are looking to for their own set of back-to-back wins, a feat they've yet to achieve this month.
Even with the positive outcome in Ottawa, the Sabres still gave up 40 shots for the fourth time in five games, a number they'll look to limit on Thursday.
"That's just playing hard in the D-zone," O'Reilly said. "It's got to start in our own end. We've got to build our game from there, playing hard, and then get creative in the offensive zone."
Evander Kane participated with the team for its morning skate after missing the game in Ottawa with the flu and said he hopes to return to the lineup. If he does, expect him to step back onto a line with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.
Robin Lehner will start in net for the Sabres, while Calvin Pickard will get the nod for the Avalanche.
The game will be nationally televised on NBCSN, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops between the Sabres and Avalanche at 7:30 p.m.
About Thursdays …
Interesting fact that you've probably already heard: the Sabres are 1-10-2 on Thursdays this season. It could be pure coincidence, or a very strange curse. The one consistency in those games is that they never follow a game the night before. The Sabres haven't played on Wednesday since November.
So, in an effort to change the outcome on this Thursday, Bylsma said the team first changed its approach to Wednesday.
"We're well aware of it," Bylsma said. "We've been good in some area where you'd think we'd be tired or we'd have a tougher spot … You do try to do things a little differently. On those Wednesdays we came in and had a meeting and an activation, an off-ice workout. Yesterday, given the schedule and coming in late it was just a complete - minus injuries and minus treatments - it was a day away from the rink."
Cody Franson was back on the ice with the team for its morning skate on Thursday, a mere five days removed from sustaining the foot injury that has forced him to miss the last three games. The original time table for his recovery was two to three weeks.
Franson won't play against the Avalanche, but he does have an eye on the weekend.
"I am a little surprised that he is back on the ice yesterday and today," Bylsma said. "We were glad that it was going to be two to three weeks, and it looks like it's a little bit sooner than that, even possibly before the break that we see Cody return to game action."
Zemgus Girgensons, meanwhile, has skated on his own the last two days but is not yet cleared for contact. He's missed four games with a middle-body injury.
56 Justin Bailey - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 12 Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson - 27 Derek Grant - 63 Tyler Ennis
29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
4 Josh Gorges - 77 Dmitry Kulikov
41 Justin Falk - 47 Zach Bogosian
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson