Sabres begin the final stretch of the season against Ottawa

January 28, 2020
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After a nine-day break from game action, the Buffalo Sabres return to work on Tuesday night as they welcome the Ottawa Senators to KeyBank Center.

Through 49 games this season, the Sabres sit with a 22-20-7 record and 51 points in the standings. That has Buffalo 10 points back of the Florida Panthers for the third place spot in the Atlantic Division, as well as the Carolina Hurricanes for the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres are 11 points back of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who sit in the first spot in the Wild Card picture.

The Hurricanes are currently on pace to finish the 2019-20 season with 98.4 points, while the Panthers are on pace to finish with 100.1 points. The team that Buffalo could catch in the standings is the Blue Jackets, who are currently on pace to finish the year with 96.7 points. That means the Sabres will likely need to put up at least 46 points to have a considerable shot at clinching a playoff spot.

If the Sabres are to kick off a stretch of games to get back into the playoff race, the time to do so would be now with nine of the next 10 games coming at the friendly confines of KeyBank Center.

"We need to have an excellent start," Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger said after practice on Monday. "There's no question that coming out of this game against New Jersey [on Monday] that Ottawa will have that game-warm edge, so we need to be bang-on, we need to be simple and just stay true to our principles as we find our legs. We need to expect it. There will be 10 minutes of climatization, but once we get that, I feel confident that we can use the energy that we feel in the group right now and channel it in the right way. There's going to be some good battles ahead. This group looks battle-ready, to me, and feels battle-ready, and you can feel a freshness that's channeled down the right path right now. So maybe we can turn that into some good hockey here."

Tuesday night's matchup will start a five-game homestand for the Sabres. After a game on the road on Friday, Feb. 7 against the New York Rangers, Buffalo will then return home for a four-game homestand.

In the stretch of home games to come, the Sabres will play five games against teams with fewer, or just as many points in the standings. Those teams include the Senators (43 points), Montreal Canadiens (51 points), Detroit Red Wings twice (28 points) and the Anaheim Ducks (43 points). The only teams that Buffalo will face in the nine home games that are ahead right now in the standings are the Blue Jackets (twice), the Colorado Avalanche, and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Sabres have been good on home ice this year, going 14-6-3 in 23 games at KeyBank Center, while only going 8-14-4 this season on the road.

This matchup between the Sabres and Senators will be the third of the season, with each team earning a win on home ice so far. Buffalo's first matchup with the Senators came back on Nov. 16 when Sabres captain Jack Eichel scored all four of Buffalo's goals in a 4-1 win at KeyBank Center. That game was the start of a personal 18-game point streak for Eichel, which ended on Dec. 23 when the Sabres lost in Ottawa at Canadian Tire Centre, 2-1. Zemgus Girgensons scored Buffalo's lone goal of the night in the second period.

Eichel was Buffalo's lone representative in the 2020 NHL All-Star Game this past weekend in St. Louis. The 23-year-old is on pace for a career-season with the Sabres, projected to score 48 goals, while also registering 57 assists for 105 points in 81 games. His 62 points currently rank Eichel ninth in league scoring, while his 28 goals are fifth in the NHL. With one more goal, Eichel will eclipse his personal high in goals set last season.

Like the team, Eichel has played some of his best hockey on home ice this season, scoring 20 goals and picking up 38 points in 23 games in front of the home crowd. His 1.65 points per-game pace at home is currently tied for the second-best rate in the league .

The Sabres will get Jeff Skinner back in the lineup after a 10-game absence from the lineup with an upper-body injury. Skinner suffered the injury in the first game after the Christmas break on Dec. 27 when he collided with Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak in front of the Sabres' bench. 

Ahead of Skinner's injury, the Buffalo winger had been playing better despite having not scored a goal in 11 straight games. The 27-year-old has scored just 11 goals this season, and has not scored since Dec 2 against the New Jersey Devils.

Skinner was back on the ice on Sunday practicing with his teammates, and was skating on a line with Marcus Johansson and Michael Frolik at practice on Monday.

Even though Skinner is back in the lineup and forward Victor Olofsson is still out at least a couple of weeks with a lower-body injury, Krueger will have Girgensons back on a line with Eichel and Reinhart on Tuesday. Girgensons is having a nice bounce back year this season with nine goals and four assists for 13 points in 49 games.

Linus Ullmark will get the call for Buffalo in goal once again. The Sabres netminder has gone 5-2 since the beginning of the month with a .932 save percentage and a 2.00 goals-against average. Ullmark's home performances have been stellar this season with wins in eight of the last 10 games, while posting a .919 save percentage and a 2.52 goals-against average. Overall this season, the 26-year-old has gone 16-13-3 in 32 games played this season with a 2.70 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage.

Krueger said following the morning skate that defenseman Zach Bogosian and forward Evan Rodrigues will be the healthy scratches against the Senators, which means that the Sabres will likely skate with 11 forwards and seven defensemen once again.

Here's a look at the possible lineup:

 

Girgensons - Eichel - Reinhart

Skinner - Johansson - Frolik

Vesey - Lazar - Okposo

Sheary - Larsson - 

 

Dahlin - Montour

Pilut - Ristolainen

McCabe - Jokiharju

Miller

 

As for the Senators, they're coming in off a 4-3 shootout loss to the Devils on Monday night on home ice. Ottawa ended up taking the lead, 3-2 with 10:19 to go in the third period, but failed to hold off a Devils attack that ended up throwing 53 shots on the night. The Devils ended up tying the game with 3:21 remaining in regulation to send the game into overtime, and in the shootout, rookie center Jack Hughes ended the night with the game-winning goal in the fourth round.

Senators goalie Marcus Hogberg ended up making 50 saves in the losing effort, which could be a sign that Craig Anderson will get the start on Tuesday. The 38-year-old is 6-12-1 in 22 games played this season with a 3.32 goals-against average and a .897 save percentage.

The last time the Sabres faced Anderson was Buffalo's loss to the Senators on Dec. 23, when he stopped 43 of 44 shots on the night to earn the win.

Ottawa has been one of the worst road teams in the NHL this season, going just 5-15-4 in 24 games. Their 17-23-9 overall record has them sitting in seventh place in the Atlantic Division, 14th place in the Eastern Conference, and 27th in the overall standings.

Anthony Duclair has been Ottawa's leading scorer this season with a team-high 21 goals and 33 points in 48 games played. The 24-year-old was one of two Senators forwards to represent the team in St. Louis for the NHL All-Star Game.

The other All-Star in the Senators' lineup is winger Brady Tkachuk, who has also had a solid season this year with 15 goals and 28 points in 49 games.

Another player that has recently been hot for the Senators is forward Connor Brown, who has points in four consecutive games. Overall this season, the 26-year-old has 10 goals and 22 assists, which puts him second in team scoring with 32 points.

Be sure to tune in for the Paul William Beltz Pregame Show at 6 p.m. with Mike Schopp and the Bulldog live at (716) Food and Sport, where you will hear from Krueger, Eichel and Sabres general manager Jason Botterill.