TAMPA BAY - Two teams trending in different directions will converge when the Buffalo Sabres meet the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on Thursday night. The Sabres will be looking to extend their point streak to five games following back-to-back home wins, while the Lightning will look to snap a four-game losing streak and earn its first victory in 2017.
Supremacy in the Eastern Conference standings is also on the line. The Lightning lead the Sabres by one point, so Buffalo can jump ahead with a regulation win. The Sabres are expecting a desperate Tampa Bay team to do everything in its power to stop that from happening.
"They want this game," Sabres forward Kyle Okposo said. "I've read a couple of things that they've been saying out of that room, they want to climb back in the race. But it's our job to make sure that we're trending upward and we're getting wins too. We want to get back in that race also."
The Sabres and Lightning have met once already this season, a 4-1 Tampa Bay win in Buffalo on Nov. 17. The difference then was that it was the Sabres in the midst of a five-game winless streak, playing without their top two centers in Ryan O'Reilly and Jack Eichel. Both are back now, and the Sabres are coming off one of their most consistent performances of the season in a 4-1 win over Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Video: PREVIEW: BUF at TBL
What remains the same from that first meeting with the Lightning is who the Sabres will be tasked with scoring against. Goalie Ben Bishop, who made 32 saves in that game, is expected to return from a nine-game absence due to an upper-body injury. In 10 career games against Buffalo, Bishop is 9-0-1 with a .947 save percentage and a 1.57 goals-against average.
"He's an enormous goalie that moves well and covers a lot of net," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "In the short time I've played against him here with the Sabres, we've had a tough time getting any kind of pucks by him and really having a tough time getting any kind of second chances on him."
With Robin Lehner staying back in Buffalo with the flu, Anders Nilsson will make his second start in a row for the Sabres. Nilsson is coming off of a 39-save performance against Philadelphia, and his .930 save percentage ranks fifth in the NHL.
Linus Ullmark will serve as Nilsson's backup.
Coverage on Thursday 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 Lightning at 7:30.
Comparing Ristolainen and Hedman
Bylsma siad he thought defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen was having a season worthy of an All-Star nod, and the numbers back that up: Ristolainen's 27 points ranks sixth among the League's defensemen, while his average ice time of 26:52 ranks fifth in the entire NHL.
What ultimately may have kept Ristolainen out is the quality of his competition in the Atlantic Division. While only five defensemen in the NHL have scored more than Ristolainen this season, three of them will represent the Atlantic: Montreal's Shea Weber (28 points), Ottawa's Erik Karlsson (32 points) and one of the players we'll see tonight, Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman (37 points).
Bylsma took the time to compare Ristolainen and Hedman on Thursday.
"Scouting their team and writing down his stats, it crossed my mind, the similarities in a lot of ways between the two," he said. "I think they play a little bit of a different game. Hedman's more of a skating guy up ice and maybe a little bit better at passing the puck and move the puck up the ice than Risto is. Risto's a heavier defender and a heavier guy to play against. But I think their guy is a guy who drives their team in a lot of ways and so is Ristolainen for us."
In addition to Nilsson, the Sabres have a handful of skaters who enter the game on hot streaks. Sam Reinhart is coming off of a three-point performance and has 12 points (3+9) in his last 10 games. Ryan O'Reilly has record two points in each of his three games since returning from an appendectomy, and Marcus Foligno is riding a three-game goal streak.
Video: REINHART: Pregame Interview
The Lightning's other All-Star, Nikita Kucherov, has recorded points in five of seven games since returning from a lower-body injury on Dec. 23. He has three goals and six assists over that span and leads the Lightning in goals (16) and points (39) in 35 games this season.
48 William Carrier - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 12 Brian Gionta
9 Evander Kane - 23 Sam Reinhart - 56 Justin Bailey
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 26 Matt Moulson
29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
47 Zach Bogosian - 6 Cody Franson
41 Justin Falk - 38 Taylor Fedun
31 Anders Nilsson
35 Linus Ullmark