Rebuilding takes time. That much is known. For the Sabres, they’re showing improvement under new coach Dan Bylsma. Winners of two of their last three, they visit the talented Lightning tonight.
At 6-8-0 with 12 points in the first 14 games, they are seventh in the Atlantic Division. However, outside of the Canadiens who are off to a whopping 13-2-1 start leading the NHL with 27 points, the Atlantic is mediocre with five points separating second place Ottawa from seventh place Buffalo. Even Tampa Bay has struggled entering play a disappointing 7-7-2 with 16 points.
The Sabres are coming off an emotional 3-2 win over the Canucks this past weekend. It was the return of Ryan Miller. The franchise leader in wins (284) and games played (540) by a goalie. Buffalo welcomed home Miller with a nice video tribute during a stoppage highlighting his best moments. He acknowledged the cheers from an appreciative crowd.
2015 second overall pick Jack Eichel recorded his first two assists. He set up Jamie McGinn and Rasmus Ristolainen. For the season, he has five goals and two helpers for seven points. He leads the Sabres in shots (49). Eichel has been okay on face-offs going 79-and-88.
Buffalo blew a two-goal lead against Vancouver. The Canucks rallied on goals from Henrik Sedin and Chris Higgins, who just squeaked one through rookie goalie Linus Ullmark. Ullmark has been a revelation winning three of his last four starts. The 22-year old from Sweden was a 2012 sixth round pick. He made 35 saves in the win over the Canucks. With starter Robin Lehner still out, Ullmark has earned starts over backup Chad Johnson, who gets the call at Tampa.
The Sabres showed character pulling out the one-goal victory on Saturday. Ristolainen scored his second goal with 16.5 seconds remaining in regulation. The play was made by Tyler Ennis, who out-skated three Canucks before passing for Marcus Foligno who found a open Ristolainen for the winner at 19:43. Ristolainen showed patience moving to the left before firing past Miller.
When they visit the Lightning, it’s already the fourth and final meeting of the season. Tampa took the first three winning 4-1 at Buffalo on Oct. 10, 2-1 at Tampa on 10/17 and 4-1 at Buffalo on 11/5. The good news is after tonight, the Sabres won’t see the Bolts again unless they meet in the playoffs. That the schedule would have them play a division rival four times in a month without any more match-ups is odd to say the least.
Tampa will be without Ondre Palat (lower body). He’s expected to miss anywhere between three to five weeks. Evander Kane (knee) remains out for Buffalo. He could return before Thanksgiving.
Victor Hedman leads the Bolts with 11 points (1-10-11). The gifted defenseman should be a leading candidate for the Norris. In a contract year, captain Steven Stamkos paces them with seven goals. After a slow start, Tyler Johnson has points in three of his last four. He and Nikita Kucherov each have eight points. Scoring has actually been an issue for Tampa. Ryan Callahan has four goals so far playing mostly on the third line with Jonathan Drouin replacing him on the Stamkos unit.
Newest Sabre Ryan O’Reilly has been as advertised. He leads them in scoring with 13 points (4-9-13). Seven of his 13 have come on the power play. O’Reilly has three power play goals and four power play assists. Since putting up 10 points (3-7-10) over a five-game stretch, he’s without a point in three straight.
With Johnson returning to net, he’ll oppose Andrei Vasilevskiy. He made 30 saves in his first start of the season against Buffalo five days ago. All-time, he’s 3-0-0 versus the Sabres with his only career shutout coming on March 3, 2015.