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Tampa Bay Lightning at Buffalo Sabres preview: A lot can change in six weeks

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The Bolts and Sabres have trended in opposite directions since their last meeting at the end of November.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Buffalo Sabres Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Lightning at Buffalo Sabres: GAME 45

Time: 7:00 pm Eastern Time

Location: KeyBank Center

Broadcast/Streaming: MSG-B, SunS

Opponent SBNation Site: Die By The Blade

Preview:

It’s been just over six weeks since the Lightning and Sabres last played each other, and boy, essentially everything I wrote in that preview has changed since. Six weeks ago, it was Buffalo leading the Atlantic. Today, Tampa Bay leads the entire league by 10 points.

The Bolts were riddled with injuries to Ondrej Palat, Anton Stralman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy at the time of their last game in November — they then went on a tear and without a regulation loss in the entire month of December. They now boast the best home and road records this season.

The Sabres - who had their 10-game winning streak snapped by the Lightning that night - actually lost the next four games. They fell out of first place in the division. Eight losses in December saw them plummet to the last wildcard spot, where they currently sit 18 points back of the Lightning.

Jeff Skinner was named the Atlantic’s ‘Last Man In’ for the All-Star Game over Brayden Point yesterday - but it’s probably better for the Bolts in the long run if Point rests for a weekend. Skinner potted his 30th goal of the season (he’s scored 23 of them at even-strength) last night to put him second among league leading goal scorers. He’s also tied for first with seven game-winning goals.

But the Bolts dominate other categories, thanks to Nikita Kucherov. He paces all skaters with 51 assists and 72 points (four more points than the next guy). Point is two goals shy of the 30-goal mark, and with 60 points, he’s six points back of his career high with half of the season left. Point is also tied for the league lead in powerplay goals (12), and is a huge reason why the Lightning have the league’s most potent powerplay (firing at 30%). Tampa Bay is dangerous on the penalty kill, too — Anthony Cirelli is tied-3rd with three shorthanded goals this season. The Sabres may have their work cut out for them.

The Bolts dealt Slater Koekkoek to the Chicago Blackhawks yesterday, which means they’re back to having just seven defensemen (and 14 forwards thanks to injuries up front). Based on line rushes in practice, it looks like Anton Stralman will be getting a night off tonight. Previously, he was not part of the rotation of healthy scratches. This leaves Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh as the only players on the blue line who are playing every night.

Also in practice this morning, both Ryan Callahan and J.T. Miller appear ready to return to the lineup. Both skated in normal jerseys and took line rushes. It appears that Mathieu Joseph and Danick Martel will be the healthy scratches. This represents a change in the coaches’ thinking as Joseph had appeared to jump Adam Erne on the depth chart. But it looks like Erne has at least earned a time share in the final forward spot.

Tampa Bay got off to a slow start on Thursday. Even though they eventually came back to win, they shouldn’t make a habit of doing that. The Sabres will make them pay — Skinner is as hot as any player right now. At the same time, though, the Lightning have proven they can come back from any deficit (and score their way to wins). It should be a great hockey game.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Forwards

Ondrej Palat - Steven Stamkos - Yanni Gourde

Tyler Johnson - Brayden Point - Nikita Kucherov

Alex Killorn - Anthony Cirelli - J.T. Miller

Adam Erne - Cedric Paquette - Ryan Callahan

Scratched: Mathieu Joseph, Danick Martel

Defense

Victor Hedman - Dan Girardi

Ryan McDonagh - Erik Cernak

Braydon Coburn - Mikhail Sergachev

Scratched: Anton Stralman

Goalies

Louis Domingue

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Buffalo Sabres

Forwards

Jeff Skinner - Jack Eichel - Tage Thompson

Conor Sheary - Vladimir Sobotka - Sam Reinhart

Zemgus Girgensons - Casey Mittelstadt - Jason Pominville

Evan Rodrigues - Johan Larsson - Kyle Okposo

Scratched: Remi Elie

Defense

Lawrence Pilut - Rasmus Ristolainen

Rasmus Dahlin - Zach Bogosian

Marco Scandella - Jake McCabe

Scratched: Matt Hunwick, Nathan Beaulieu

Goalies

Carter Hutton

Linus Ullmark