There's no denying the fact that the Buffalo Sabres have struggled lately when it comes to playing the Tampa Bay Lightning, their opponent at KeyBank Center on Saturday night. The Sabres are 1-9-0 in their last 10 games against the Lightning, and 0-2-0 this season.
The difference now is that a matchup with the Lightning no longer means a meeting with Ben Bishop; the goalie who had so much success against Buffalo over the past few seasons was shipped to Los Angeles prior to the trade deadline. The Lightning also sent forward Valterri Filppula to Philadelphia in an effort to shed salary.
But regardless of who's in the Tampa Bay lineup, the Sabres aren't worried as much about their last 10 games against the Lightning as they are the one tonight. Buffalo, looking for its second win in a row, sits one point behind Tampa Bay in the standings.
"We can't go in the past too much," alternate captain Ryan O'Reilly said. "We had a good win last game, I think we're back on track doing the right things. For us, it's just establishing our game right away. We've got to get out there, we've got to get our feet moving, we've got to make sure we're competing. If we can do that, I think at the end of the game we can take it over and win."
The Lightning are still a ways away from seeing Steven Stamkos return from injury, but his absence hasn't prevented them from finding the back of the net. A large part of that is the presence of Nikita Kucherov, who's having a career year with 62 points (28+34) in just 56 games. His average of 1.11 points per game ranks fifth in the NHL.
Kucherov is tied for third in the League with 12 power-play goals, and the Lightning currently hold the title of the League's most efficient power play at 22.9 percent (Buffalo's sits at 22.8 percent). It will be a test for a Buffalo penalty kill that still ranks 29th but is 18-for-19 in its last eight games.
"I think we're doing a good job," O'Reilly said. "Obviously it was an issue for a while there. It's one of those things that has to be better. I think if you look at the better teams in the League, they all have good penalty kils. I mean, it's an important thing. We want to be aggressive and we want to play physical and obviously penalties are going to happen. We have to have a good penalty kill that can kill those off."
At even strength, Tampa Bay relies on its speed and long game to create offense on the rush.
"We're going to have to slow them down," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "Getting in front of them is really a key for us in the game. To be able to do that is to have a high F3, to have a good forward back for our defense to squash that rush before they get into their pull-up and speed and skill game that they can play with almost throughout their lineup."
Robin Lehner will start in net for the Sabres. He's expected to be opposed by Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Lightning.
Coverage on Saturday 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.
Buffalo will play its first game without forward Kyle Okposo, who is week-to-week with an injury to his ribs. Bylsma said that the team will reevaluate Okposo, who leads the team with 43 points (19+24) in 63 games, in seven to 10 days.
"It's disappointing," O'Reilly said. "Obviously, it's tough. He's been a key guy all year and to see him go down like that, it's frustrating. It hurts. It'll be a tough spot to fill."
With Okposo out, Evander Kane and Brian Gionta are expected to play on the top line alongside O'Reilly. Nicolas Deslauriers, a healthy scratch for the last four games, will rejoin the lineup on a line with Zemgus Girgensons and Justin Bailey.
Video: BYLSMA: Pregame Interview
"He needs to be a physical presence, he needs to be a factor in the game with his body," Bylsma said. "We need all four lines to play in this game tonight against the Tampa Bay lightning and I think with Zemgus and [Bailey's] speed and Nic being physical they can be an effective line for us."
Here's how the full lineup is expected to look on Saturday:
9 Evander Kane - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 12 Brian Gionta
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
63 Tyler Ennis - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 26 Matt Moulson
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 56 Justin Bailey
29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
77 Dmitry Kulikov - 47 Zach Bogosian
4 Josh Gorges - 6 Cody Franson
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson