Saturday’s dominant 6-2 win over Toronto is already a thing of the past for the Sabres, who must now shift their focus to the Southeast Division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, which has won seven of its last eight games and ranks second in the Eastern Conference.
Buffalo has gone 10-4-1 in its last 15 games and enters the week five points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The first test of the Sabres’ two-game road trip to Florida, which also includes a date with the Panthers on Thursday, pits them against one of the NHL’s highest scoring clubs in Tampa Bay.
“They’re a tough hockey team to play against, especially with a guy like (Steven) Stamkos and (Martin) St. Louis and those types of players,” said defenseman Tyler Myers
. “They play so well together and it’s going to be a tough game but we’re in desperate mode here from now until the end.”
The Sabres will look for a better outcome on their second trip of the season to Florida. Back in December, they spent two days in the Sunshine State and returned to Buffalo with a pair of losses after falling 6-2 to the Panthers and 3-1 to the Lightning.
One of the challenges that the Sabres will face in Tampa Bay is finding a way to slow down Stamkos, who leads the NHL with 40 goals. In 10 career games against the Sabres, the former No. 1 overall draft pick has registered 10 points on four goals and six assists.
“(Tampa) has four or five star players there, weapons that you have to take care of, and if you don’t, you’ll get beat,” said Head Coach Lindy Ruff.
Steve Montador was the only Sabre not on the ice for practice Monday. Lindy Ruff said the defenseman was held out of the session so he could “get a little bit of maintenance work done.” Ruff did not know whether Montador would be able to play Tuesday, nor did he disclose the nature of the injury, but he did say that it was related to something that happened during the Toronto game on Saturday.
As for Patrick Kaleta
, Ruff said he was getting close to a return from the hand injury that has sidelined him for 11 of the last 14 games.
“He’s close. (Today was) his first full day with handling the puck and I thought it was ok,” said Ruff.
When asked whether he was now able to handle the puck and shoot, Kaleta joked, “I never really could in the first place.” He added that he'll be ready to play the same way he always does when called upon.
is the perennial goal-scoring leader for the Sabres and once again leads the club with 19 on the season. This season, however, he also leads the team in assists, which is a first for the sniper.
Vanek has collected 25 helpers on the season and is on pace to approach his career-high total of 41 assists, which he set during the 2006-07 campaign. Since then, he has not recorded more than 28 assists in a single season.
Vanek attributes the increase in assists to an adjustment he’s had to make since his playmaking pivot, center Derek Roy
, went down with an injury. Without Roy, Vanek has been forced to carry the puck more, allowing him to create opportunities for other players.
“With (Derek) out, I feel like I have the puck more and I’m creating more myself,” he said.
Ruff agreed that Roy’s absence has given Vanek more opportunities to be a distributor and not just a shooter.
“With Derek’s absence, you’ve got to fill holes,” Ruff said. “It’s just as important that (Thomas) goes and gets pucks and handles the puck and gets it to other people. I think for the most part when Derek is there, Derek has the puck most of the time and Thomas is the guy trying to get open.”
Since Roy got injured on Dec. 23, Vanek has notched 13 assists in 16 games.