TAMPA – Although only a month into the 2015-16 season, the Buffalo Sabres will close the door on a season series against a divisional rival on Tuesday.
When the puck drops at 7:30 p.m. at Amalie Arena, the Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning will have played each other four times already this season. The Lightning have the edge so far as the reigning Eastern Conference champions have won all three games between the two clubs.
The game can be seen nationally on NBCSN and heard on WGR 550.
The Sabres will again test some new line combinations Tuesday night. While they’ve played together in spurts this season, the contest will mark the first real opportunity for rookie center Jack Eichel and right wing Tyler Ennis – who led the Sabres in scoring last season – to develop chemistry on a line together.
They’ll be joined by Jamie McGinn on the left side. McGinn, who is coming off back surgery that ended his season early at about this time last year, has put together a strong campaign for the Sabres through 14 games. He has three goals and three assists with points in four of his past six games (3+1).
“I’m starting to feel a lot better now. I’m feeling like I’m more confident on the ice and I’m seeing things better,” McGinn said after the team’s morning skate. “Having that big layoff, it takes a little bit to get back into it. I’m starting to feel like my old self again which is good.”
He’s been a net-front presence and played a crucial role in two of the Sabres’ three goals in their win on Saturday over Vancouver.
He opened the scoring in the second period by redirecting a shot-pass from Mark Pysyk. Then he set up a perfect screen on the power play a few minutes later on goaltender Ryan Miller, which allowed Rasmus Ristolainen’s shot from the point to find its way into the back of the net.
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma expects more of the same from McGinn against Tampa and has seen an improvement in McGinn’s game since the start of Training Camp.
"Coming into Training Camp, it was getting his legs, getting his conditioning, getting his feet back underneath him was a big part. We saw that all through Training Camp and that’s a hard time to do it,” Bylsma said. “You’re dealing with up tempo, but even as Training Camp ended, we were imploring him to keep working on that skating aspect of it and getting his feet underneath him.
“I think he’s done a pretty good job of that and you’re seeing the results in the hard areas and being physical and getting to the net and being a factor there.”
Alternate captain Ryan O'Reilly played four seasons in Colorado with McGinn before both were traded to the Sabres back in June. He’s glad to see his teammate be rewarded for his efforts with some big goals.
“It’s tough to take almost a full year off from hockey,” O’Reilly said. “To find his game again at this time, it’s not easy to do. It’s been great for him and great for our team as well.”
26 Matt Moulson – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 12 Brian Gionta
88 Jamie McGinn – 15 Jack Eichel – 63 Tyler Ennis
22 Johan Larsson – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 23 Sam Reinhart
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 17 David Legwand – 82 Marcus Foligno
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 46 Cody Franson
25 Carlo Colaiacovo – 3 Mark Pysyk
31 Chad Johnson
35 Linus Ullmark
STARTERS AND SCRATCHES
Chad Johnson will start in goal and defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo returns to the lineup after missing the past two games with an upper-body injury.
Defenseman Mike Weber left the skate early with a lower-body injury he sustained back on Saturday. Bylsma called it “not much more than a bump and a bruise” but he will not play against Tampa.
Tim Schaller is expected to be a healthy scratch.
The Sabres last faced the Lightning on Thursday and Buffalo had chances in the first period to convert on, but ended up down 3-0 after the opening 20 minutes. They ended up losing the game 4-1 as Andrei Vasilevskiy made 30 saves for Tampa. He’ll be in net again for the Lightning on Tuesday.
Tampa Bay has beaten the Sabres in seven-straight contests dating back to Dec. 4, 2014.
However, if there’s a time to break the streak, now may be it. Buffalo enters Tuesday’s game having won three of its last four games. A win tonight would give the Sabres wins in four of five games for the first time since December 2014. Buffalo has never lost eight-straight games to Tampa and has never been swept by the Lightning in a season-series.
The Lightning will be without forward Ondrej Palat, who is expected to miss 3-5 weeks with a lower-body injury. Tampa called up forward Mike Blunden on Monday.