The playoff race is on; Buffalo Sabres at Tampa Bay Lightning preview

WHERE:St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa, Florida
MEDIA: WTOG 44 (local TV), 620 WDAE (radio)

Have you looked at the standings lately? I mean, really looked at them in the division and the Eastern Conference? I brought up how tight the SE race was before Wednesday's win shootout victory over the Thrashers, but seeing is more important than being told what the deal is:

Southeast Standings

Washington 33 18 11 4 40
Atlanta 33 17 11 5 39
Tampa Bay 31 17 10 4 38
Carolina 30 14 12 4 32
Florida 30 14 16 0 28

(updated 12.18.2010 at 7:13 AM EST)

With two games in hand, the Bolts are thisclose to grabbing a share of the division lead. The Southeast division has three teams currently in playoff position (with a fourth, the Hurricanes, coming up the rear and slated ninth in the conference)

It's December, the season has yet to reach the half-way point, but jockeying for position in the East is high gear before the new year has been rung in.

The Buffalo Sabres come into town tonight, on the heels of their loss to the Florida Panthers last night. The Sabres are evidence of the parity in the Eastern Conference -- you don't want to get caught thinking they are bottom dwellers, but they are 11th in the conference standings with a losing record. The Atlantic division is dominated by the Montreal Canadiens, followed by the Bruins, and trails off quickly with the Senators, Sabres and Maple Leafs.

Yet, while Ryan Miller and Tyler Myers were great last season, inconsistent would be a better description for them this year. Miller, in last night's loss, gave up four goals on 10 shots and was chased in favor of Patrick LaLime. That's completely uncharacteristic of the Millercle worker of last year.

But then again, Miller has been battling groin issues as of late. And as Lightning fans know well, goalie issues lead to team issues entirely.

Mike Smith gets the start in net for Tampa Bay tonight, his second start in a row.

The Buffalo Sabres power play is ranked 20th int he NHL, they are converting 16.4% of their opportunities, and they are 20 for 122 for the entire season. They'll be facing the Lightning's 7th ranked penalty kill unit, which is shunning 83.9% of opposing power plays, and has allowed 20 goals in 124 short-handed situations through 31 games.

And then there's the Lightning power play, which is 3rd in the NHL, converting on 23.7% of their chances (32 for 135 on the season). The downside of that is they've also given up a league leading 7 short-handed goals this season so far. They'll be squaring off against Buffalo's 12th ranked penalty kill unit. The Sabres are stopping 82.5 of opposing power plays (22 goals allowed on 126 short-handed situations the season).

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