The Sabres and Bruins will meet for their third matchup of the season tonight and then get back together for their final meeting of the season Saturday night in Boston. It’s odd that the Sabres and Bruins will have played all four of their division games before the halfway mark of the season, but that’s how the schedule goes this year.
Tonight’s game is far more important for the Sabres than the Bruins and for that matter Saturday’s game as well. Boston won the first two games and Buffalo can’t afford to be swept in the season series if they want to be in the playoff discussion. These games will be the last chance the club will get to control their own fate against the Bruins and makeup ground.
With tonight’s game in their own building, this is bordering on a must-win for the Sabres. It’s hard to consider game 35 of an 82 game season to be the so crucial, but it’s in that neighborhood, especially since the Sabres have had trouble winning games in TD Garden in the past.
A sweep by the Bruins would put the Sabres ten points out of third place in the Atlantic which is realistically the only path to the playoffs at this point. A weekend sweep by Buffalo, on the other hand, would put them two points behind Boston and right back in the thick of the playoff race.
Also, if the Sabres win both games against the Bruins will be facing some trouble of their own. The seat around Boston head coach Claude Julien is getting very hot these days. He’s been with the organization since 2007 and did bring a Stanley Cup to Boston. However, the Bruins have missed the playoffs the past two seasons and he was expected to be on a short leash to begin this year. After coming up short in three of their last four, losing both games this weekend could be the final straw for Julien in his long tenure with Boston.
Robin Lehner will start in goal tonight for the Sabres and Cody Franson will return to the lineup after missing a few games. He’ll take the spot of Dmitry Kulikov who’ll be out again with a lower back injury.
Coach Bylsma: Lehner starts tonight. Kulikov will not play (lower back injury); Franson is in. pic.twitter.com/tge5ds64MA
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) December 29, 2016
Boston Bruins at Buffalo Sabres
Key Bank Center – 7 p.m. EST
Broadcast channels – MSG-B & NESN
2016-17 Season Series: November 7th – Bruins 4 Sabres 0 | December 3rd – Bruins 2 Sabres 1
Boston Bruins – 18-15-4 – 40 Points
Road Record: 10-6-4
Hot Players: Torey Krug and Ryan Spooner
Key Injuries: Matt Beleskey and John-Michael Liles
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak
Ryan Spooner – David Krejci – David Backes
Frank Vatrano – Austin Czarnik – Riley Nash
Anton Blidh – Dominic Moore – Jimmy Hayes
Zdeno Chara – Brandon Carlo
Torey Krug – Adam McQuaid
Kevan Miller – Colin Miller
Buffalo Sabres – 13-13-8 – 34 Points
Home Record: 7-7-3
Hot Players: Evander Kane and Brian Gionta
Key Injuries: Tyler Ennis, Dmitry Kulikov and Ryan O’Reilly
Matt Moulson – Jack Eichel – Marcus Foligno
Zemgus Girgensons – Sam Reinhart – Kyle Okposo
Evander Kane – Johan Larsson – Brian Gionta
William Carrier – Derek Grant – Nic Deslauriers
Rasmus Ristolainen – Jake McCabe
Zach Bogosian – Cody Franson
Justin Falk – Josh Gorges
1) Evander Kane is the Sabres’ hottest player coming into tonight. He’s scored four goals in his last five games including the game winner against Detroit on Tuesday. He’s appeared to have fully recovered from the rib injury earlier this season and is starting to produce as expected.
One you'll want to watch on repeat.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) December 28, 2016
2) Tuukka Rask will be between the pipes for the Bruins tonight. He’s owned the Sabres over the last two years. This season Rask is 2-0-0 against Buffalo with a .985 save percentage and has only allowed one goal. His season numbers are excellent with a 1.95 goals against average and .927 save percentage. As Rask goes the Bruins go. The Sabres need to crack that riddle and finally put some pucks past him in order to win these games.
3) Picking up points against Eastern Conference opponents continues to be a difficult task for the Sabres. They’re 7-10-7 against the East this season which is a .411 winning percentage. They’ll need to improve that number if they have any hopes of climbing the standings. Picking up 43 percent of the points against conference opponents is one reason they’re in this hole.
4) The Sabres were able to score the first goal of the game for the first time in their last seven games against thanks to Kane against Detroit on Tuesday. Scoring first again tonight is critical. The Bruins have the ability to lock down defensively and rely on Rask if they lead early.
5) Brad Marchand is another Bruins player who has given the Sabres fits throughout his career. He’s scored 27 points in 33 career games against the Sabres (16 goals and 11 assists). Marchand leads Boston this season with 29 points heading into tonight.
These two games will go a long way in deciding the direction the Sabres are headed in this season. The season, of course, is not over if they lose one or both of these games. However, a sweep will not only be a huge blow in the standings but could take the wind out of their sails. Heading into 2017 with both wins would set the Sabres up nicely for an interesting second half.