Buffalo - December 31, 2014 -
Who: Tampa Bay Lightning
Where: First Niagra Center, Buffalo, NY
Know thine enemy: The Lightning, along with the Montreal Canadiens, are the toast of the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference right now with 50 points through 38 games. They’ve struggled a bit over their last 10, going 5-4-1, but they’ve heated up of late having won their last three.
Offense has been the name of the game in Tampa this year and they have plenty of it to go around. They’re second in the NHL in goals per game right now, averaging 3.18 per game. Steven Stamkos leads the way in both goals (20) and points (38), but the surprises of the team have been Tyler Johnson (37 points and a team-best 24 assists) and Nikita Kucherov (15 goals, 34 points). Both have stepped up in a big way, giving the Lightning offensive depth that is hard to match.
Past those three, the Lightning have another three players with at least 20 points and a whopping 12 total with double-digits in points. To put it in contrast, the Sabres have two guys with 20 or more points and eight with double-digits in points, which admittedly surprised me.
It’s looking like the crease will be manned by rookie Andrei Vasilevsky, the highly-touted prospect out of the American Hockey League. He’s already made three starts this year, going 2-1-0 with a 2.01 goals against average and .940 save percentage. Not having to face Bishop is nice, but the Sabres won’t get much slack facing the touted rookie.
About the Sabres: Enroth will get the nod again, leaving many to wonder if he’s simply the man right now or if Michal Neuvirth is still battling some kind of ailment that is keeping him out of the lineup. Enroth has looked less-than-stellar after having a superhuman stretch from November to early December, but he’s still the one thing keeping the Sabres in games on most nights.
The Sabres are also hot as fire at home, having won seven of their last eight at the First Niagra Center, including a comeback from down 3-0 against the Islanders back on December 27th that resulted in a shootout win for the hometown team.
The defense might get a little bit of a boost as Tyson Strachan could return after missing the last five with a lower-body injury. Still, they’re banged up on a back end that already gives up the most shots in the league.
Offensively, Chris Stewart has picked a good time to come alive. He was a healthy scratch earlier in the month and didn’t take too kindly to it. Thankfully, he’s used that to fuel a five-game point streak (two goals, three assists). Zemgus Girgensons (11 goals, 20 points) and Tyler Ennis (23 points) continue to be the driving forces on offense, though Matt Moulson has started to wake up a bit.
The last time these two met: During their hot run, the Sabres managed to steal a 2-1 shootout victory at home against the Bolts, one of many during that stretch. Their second meeting, however, did not go so well.
Steven Stamkos started a second period avalanche, tallying a goal and two assists on the way to a 5-0 Tampa Bay Victory. Even uglier, Ben Bishop not only got his first shutout of the season, but he only faced 13 shots on the night. The Sabres were not only shelled, but they didn’t even bother showing up to the building in Tampa. Even worse, things got ugly in the third period, with six players earning 10 minute misconducts.
The part where I predict things: The Sabres are falling back to Earth, Enroth especially, having lost four of five. They’re good at home (10-8-2), but they’re running into the most balanced team in the East and a team that likely needs every game this year in a battle with Montreal.
The Bolts are hot, the Sabres are suddenly not. You do the math on that one.
Score: 4-1 Lightning
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