Ralph Krueger got his first taste of the rivalry between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs during a pair of preseason meetings back in September. His true introduction will come this weekend.
The Sabres open a home-and-home set against the Maple Leafs inside KeyBank Center at 4 p.m. on Friday. They'll cross the border for a rematch at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
"We're really excited about it," Krueger said. "It's been highlighted on the calendar for a while, this back-to-back. You can feel the energy in the group. We're going to make the picture small here and do our best to play some strong hockey.
"Of course, the rivalry will bring emotion into the building. We know it'll be a mix of people from Canada and Buffalo supporting both sides, which will create a bit of an atmosphere like I'm used to often in Europe, when there's lots of road fans. It'll certainly give a spark to the game."
Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Krueger
Though there is plenty of season left to be played, the games should hold significance in the standings. The Maple Leafs sit in third in the Atlantic Division with 28 points. The Sabres are two points behind them with a game in hand.
The Sabres will look to use these games to build on the positives they displayed in their last four games. They only earned one victory in that stretch - against Florida on Sunday - but held leads in all four. The next step is turning those long positive stretches into consistent habits.
"I think when we look at it after the game it's easier to digest that we're doing a lot of good things," forward Conor Sheary said. "It's kind of a mental switch that we turn off for only five minutes a game and it seems like we let other teams back in. I think that's been the case the past couple games.
"We can take a lot of the good from that and hopefully learn from it. Just keep doing more of the same and stay locked in for a full 60."
The Sabres outshot the Flames, 36-29, on Wednesday but fell 3-2 in overtime. Sheary and linemate Jeff Skinner in particular had their share of scoring chances, with four shots apiece.
"It's just putting the puck in the net," Sheary said. "Including myself, I think there's a lot of guys in here that are a little bit snake bitten. Although we are getting chances, we're not getting the result. To win in this league, you need secondary scoring. So, I think a lot of guys need to bear down in those situations and start providing for us."
Toronto has won three straight games since Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as head coach, including a 6-0 victory in Detroit on Wednesday. Krueger said they don't expect many structural changes in their opponent, though they do expect to face an emotionally charged team.
Krueger stressed the Maple Leafs' scoring ability as a point of emphasis. They rank fifth in the league with 86 goals.
"Every D-man's involved," he said. "They attack in a group of five. Every time they've got the puck they're dangerous, and they enjoying playing that part of the game. So, we need to bring our very best defensive game to the rink tomorrow to be competitive with them."
Though they're maintaining their small picture and day-to-day approach, Sheary said the opportunity the weekend presents hasn't been lost on the players.
"One game at a time, especially against a division opponent," Sheary said. "Take two points when you can. We'll start with that tomorrow. I think we realize it's a big weekend for us and hopefully we can get a few points out of it."
68 Victor Olofsson - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
37 Casey Mittelstadt - 90 Marcus Johansson - 13 Jimmy Vesey
53 Jeff Skinner - 22 Johan Larsson - 43 Conor Sheary
74 Rasmus Asplund - 15 Jean-Sebastien Dea / 27 Curtis Lazar - 28 Zemgus Girgensons
Defensemen: 4 Zach Bogosian, 6 Marco Scandella, 10 Henri Jokiharju, 19 Jake McCabe, 33 Colin Miller, 55 Rasmus Ristolainen, 62 Brandon Montour
35 Linus Ullmark
40 Carter Hutton
Unit 1: Reinhart, Johansson, Eichel, Olofsson, Ristolainen
Unit 2: Skinner, Sheary, Mittelstadt, Miller, Montour