Less than 13 hours removed from their 3-1 win in Toronto on Saturday night, the Buffalo Sabres reported to KeyBank Center on Sunday morning with another major opportunity awaiting them in the form of their game against the Vancouver Canucks.
The Sabres had talked about just how big that matchup with Toronto was, and they did their job to cut the distance between them and the Maple Leafs to a mere five points with the win. With Toronto not playing on Sunday, Buffalo now has a chance to cut that deficit to three.
"We inch up a couple, we get close and talk about being five or six points back," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "We have a big game to move even closer and we haven't taken that opportunity to get on that roll ... I think we've got ourselves a situation where we can do that right now."
The Sabres will look to replicate the start they had on Saturday, when they came out and established their forecheck early to score three first-period goals against the Maple Leafs. Kyle Okposo, who tallied an assist in the period, said it was a template for how they can be successful night in and night out.
"I've said it all year, that if we can get out of our own zone then we're a pretty good team," Okposo said. "I think that's where it starts, is in our own zone because we have a lot of talent and skill up front. If we can play in the offensive zone, then we become a good hockey team and I think that's been the key."
Robin Lehner will start for the second time in as many nights after stopping 43 of the 44 shots he faced in Toronto. It will be the first time Lehner has started on back-to-back nights as a Sabre, and it comes appropriately during what might be his hottest stretch of the season. Lehner has made at least 37 saves in each of his last five starts and is 6-3-1 with a .933 save percentage in 2017.
On Saturday, he helped the Sabres withstand a flurry of shots in the third period with his calm presence in the net.
"I think the scoring chances that we gave up last night and the opportunities really came around the blue paint, especially in the third period, especially in the second half of the game," Bylsma said. "They got pucks there, they were putting pucks there, they had people there crashing to and around the net. I thought that has been really good for him the last really two games, but last game in particular just being really strong in those tight areas."
The Canucks come into the game having also played on Saturday, a 4-2 afternoon loss in Boston. Former Sabre Ryan Miller got the start in that game, so it will be Jacob Markstrom getting the start against the Sabres. Markstrom made 26 saves when the Canucks beat the Sabres 2-1 in Vancouver on Oct. 20.
Bo Horvat, 21, is having a career year for Vancouver, having already matched his career-high with a team-leading 16 goals in 55 games. Horvat's 36 points also lead the team, with brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin ranking second and third with 34 and 30 points, respectively.
"Henrik and Daniel, they've been the faces of that franchise for an extremely long time," said Evander Kane, a Vancouver native. "They still move the puck around extremely well and find each other extremely well. They're not the biggest guys in the world but they're strong, and they're hard to handle down low especially."
Coverage on Sunday begins at 7 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops between the Sabres and Canucks at 7:30.
Sabres' power play ascends to No.1
The Buffalo power play has consistently ranked among the League's best all season, but a 1-for-1 night in Toronto on Saturday saw it ascend to even new heights. At 23.8 percent, the Sabres have surpassed the Columbus Blue Jackets as the most efficient power play in the NHL.
"I think our unit is starting to become extremely familiar with each other and see to just kind of know," Okposo said. "We know our release plays, we know where each other are going to be and that's a really big thing on the power play."
While Buffalo's top unit of Okposo, Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly have contributed much of the success - those five have accounted for 25 of the team's 39 power-play goals - Kane says he thinks the team second unit has begun to find its legs as well.
"Well, we call ourselves the top unit," Kane said, laughing. "No, I think it's great. I think, obviously, the top unit, they move the puck around really well and definitely have the bulk of the offense on the power play. I think with our group, when we get our opportunities, we want to create as much as we can and obviously contribute offensively too. I think we've done a really good job of that in the past 20 games."
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 - 38 Taylor Fedun
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson