Awfully familiar and familiarly awful; Tampa Bay Lightning versus Buffalo Sabres preview

Coming off a rare win last night, the Buffalo Sabres come to Tampa with their cast of characters and organization in shambles.

Where: Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa, Florida
When:  | Tickets: Check availability
Media: Sun Sports (cable) | 970 AM WFLA (radio)
Opponent Coverage: Die by the Blade

How well do you remember OK Hockey Group LTD, Lightning fans?  I'm not trying to whip Oren Koules or Len Barrie, Brian Lawton, Rick Tocchet and Barry Melrose so much...  I just need you to think of the macro of the moment.  The negative of those respective years (starting with the failed Absolute Hockey bid to buy the Bolts and moving forward until March 2010 when Jeff Vinik took over). I need you to remember it.

Then I need you to respect the fans in Buffalo who are suffering through a time where it appears the exact same thing is playing out. Not that there is a lack of money in Sabres owner Terry Pegula, or a lack of investment in the team... It's just a poor choice of investments that have beguiled the on-ice product. Tie it all together with Ron Rolston's AHL coaching and you have the makings of a cellar dweller that has the "honor" of having two long-term suspended players to match the horrible 2-9-1 start.

I may exploit the Sabres woes for the sake of writing this preview, but I don't bring this up to mock them.  I mention it all because I feel a kinship with them.  I've seen bad Lightning teams with no way out, and I've seen NBC Sports Net use the Bolts as a whipping boy in favor of other clubs (counterpoint: This is routine, and universally reviled).  I can't just point and laugh, or write a scathing piece about the implosion (as Damien Cox did in the Toronto Star).  I have too much feeling for Sabres fans on this.

It'd be pretty easy to point to the Lightning's situation with its own AHL head coach in Jon Cooper and suggest that things could have gone in the same direction for Tampa Bay to start the season, but that's a bit of a stretch. Cooper was handed reigns to an underperforming team earlier this year; he had been part of a long-term organizational revamp that saw development and patience stressed. Something deliberate instead of flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants previous management.

On the other hand, Rolston's hire is part of a culture at current in Sabres management that mimics OK Hockey - throw money and shit against the wall and see what sticks.

Enough of that; we still have a game to play here. The Sabres are actually coming off a victory in South Florida against the Panthers, where Jhonas Enroth frustrated the Cats (who will be the Lightning's opponent Sunday) into submission: 44 saves on 45 shots by Florida. That's good. That's real good. It also should be an indicator that Ryan Miller gets the go tonight at Times Palace.

This game is the Bolts finale of their season opening, season long seven game homestand. They're going in to the game with an injured Victor Hedman (who took a shot off his foot against the Blackhawks on Thursday); every sign says that he's playing tonight. Yet Jon Cooper will "go there" with the roster tonight and finally invoke the 11/7 roster split (11 forward, 7 defensemen) as Andrej Sustr will be out and Mark Barberio and Keith Aulie will be in. I'd assume that, if Hedman really can't go, that'll change. But all signs point to the contrary right now.

Despite being lit up in his last two starts, it's Ben Bishop in net tonight. He's given up 9 goals in his past two games, getting pulled in the demoralizing obliteration suffered against the heated rival Boston Bruins last weekend. Anders Lindback is confirmed as the starting netminder against the Panthers tomorrow in Sunrise.

While the homestand ends, and the Lightning have taken 8 of a possible 12 points in the previous six games of the series, I can't help but fear this (and the next three games in general) could be trap-games for Tampa.  The Bolts have weathered some of the NHL's most formidable teams during the first month of the season. In Buffalo, Florida, and New Jersey (Wednesday in Newark) they're facing the dregs of the league at current: three teams that only have as many victories as the Lightning when you combine records all together. If the Bolts get lost in the media coverage of the upcoming teams, they may be in for a rude awakening.  But if they come t these games with business in mind (and the work that goes with it), they have a chance for 6 points that are ripe for the taking.

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