COLUMBUS - The Columbus Blue Jackets are the only team that the Buffalo Sabres have yet to meet this season, but they're about to get to know each other well. The two teams begin a home-and-home set at Nationwide Arena on Friday and then meet again in Buffalo on Saturday. They'll meet a third time on March 28.
For as unfamiliar as the Sabres might be with the Blue Jackets on the ice, however, they do have a good idea of what to expect.
"They're fast. They're hard. They play a good game, obviously well-coached. They've got good goaltending," Sabres forward Jack Eichel said. "We know this is going to be a good test for us. They come ready to play every night. They've got a lot of offensive power. They can blow you out of the building if you're not ready to play.
"It's going to be a real good, tough test for us tonight and I look forward to it."
The Blue Jackets became the talk of the NHL when they won 16 games in a row in December and January - one victory shy of matching the record set by Pittsburgh in the 1992-93 season. They've gone from finishing second-to-last in the Eastern Conference last season to having the second most points in the entire League this season.
Meanwhile, Columbus is one of five teams to rank in the top five in both goals-for (fifth, at 3.15) and goals-against (second at 2.28).
"It's going to be a big test for us," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "We're going to be playing a really good hockey team tonight and one that really competes at a high level. That's really the trademark of their team, their compete and their energy and their work. That's going to be the test for our group tonight."
While the individual players on Columbus may not be household names around the League, the Blue Jackets do feature skill throughout their lineup. Bylsma pointed to Alexander Wennberg, who at age 22 ranks second on the team with 52 points, as an example of a player quietly developing into a top scorer for Columbus this season.
"He's not a guy that you get mentioned with other good players in the League, other top lines in the League," Bylsma said. "Brandon Saad is quietly having a - not so quietly - but having a really good year. Cam Atkinson is another guy who, maybe not mentioned in the tops of the League, but he's a very good player and his points are in indications of that.
"They are a hard working group that comes at you really throughout their lineup, with that sped and that energy. Not the biggest names in the world, they don't have that calling card to them, but they're a team that has a lot of speed, skill and work and that's how they pile up goals."
With Joonas Korpisalo expected to start in net for Columbus, the Sabres will avoid Sergei Bobrovsky, if only for one night. Bobrovsky ranks third in the League in save percentage (.931) and goals-against average (2.05). He also has shutouts in three straight games, having made 91 saves over that stretch.
Robin Lehner will get the start for the Sabres, looking to turn the tide after a 6-3 loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Coverage on Friday begins at 6:30 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7 p.m.
Eichel looking to extend streak
With a point tonight, Eichel can extend his career-best points streak to 12 games. That would tie Minnesota's Mikael Granlund for the longest such streak in the NHL this season.
Eichel said after the morning skate on Friday that its minor details that have attributed to the most productive stretch of his young career.
"I would say just the consistency, adding a little more grit and compete in your game, getting in corners, getting pucks back, a little more physical," Eichels aid. "Little stuff like that gives you a little bit more room to open stuff up."
Look for Justin Bailey, who has seen his ice time decrease as he's skated in the bottom six as of late, to return to the top line alongside Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly. Bylsma said Bailey's moments of impact with his speed have been too few and far between as of late, but the second-year forward has had success alongside O'Reilly this season.
"For me I think it's just getting in hard on the forecheck and creating space with my speed, pushing D back and I think him making plays and getting open," Bailey said.
Here's how the full lineup is expected to look to begin the game:
9 Evander Kane - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 56 Justin Bailey
26 Matt Moulson - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 63 Tyler Ennis
29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
41 Justin Falk - 47 Zach Bogosian
4 Josh Gorges - 6 Cody Franson
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson