Buffalo Sabres: 7-12-1 (15pts) at Florida Panthers: 6-9-4 (16pts)
The only way to really make up ground in the NHL is to string together some wins. Picking up one point in a game is okay and all, but if a team is really going to make some noise in the standings then they are going to have to win a couple in a row. This is something the Panthers have been unable to do this season. Only once have the Panthers won back to back games, and they achieved that feat by beating the Winnipeg Jets and Buffalo Sabres in back to back games. Well Florida got the first win out of the way Tuesday night in a 6-4 win over the Penguins. Thats the hardest one, you can’t go on a winning streak without winning one game first. Tonight Florida faces off against those same Buffalo Sabres again with the chance to go on an actual real life winning streak of two whole games!
The Sabres will have a slightly different look than they had on the teams’ previous meeting, a 4-3 Panther win. Buffalo has since fired their head coach of 15 years Lindy Ruff replacing him with interim coach Ron Rolston formerly of the AHL’s Rochester Americans. So far in the Roston Era, the Sabres have gone 1-2 winning their most recent game 2-1 Tuesday in Tampa Bay.
Florida is looking to carry over their momentum from a big 6-4 win Tuesday against the Penguins. So many times I have written after a Panther win about carrying momentum over into the next game only to see the Panthers come out and fall flat on their faces. “Carrying over the momentum” is kind of one of those sports cliches that make sense but don’t really mean anything but nonetheless the point is, it would be nice to see the Panthers play well in back to back games.
Tomas Kopecky was the star Tuesday recording his first career hat trick. With the disappearance of Stephen Weiss this season, and the injuries to Versteeg, the Panthers have had to look elsewhere for offense. The Kid Line of Huberdeau-Shore-Mueller has stepped into a leading role but what was nice about Tuesday was the Panthers got scoring from secondary sources. Kopecky scored the trio (he now has 8 goals on the season tied for first on the team), Goc got involved with his first goal of the season, Fleischmann made an appearance on the scoresheet after a long absence (5th goal of the season), and the defense chipped in offensively.
More importantly the Panthers’ special teams play made an impact. The Panthers scored four power play goals against the Penguins and the result was a win. In the Panthers 13 losses they have converted only 4% of their power plays (2-48) while in their wins, the Panthers are closer to a 45% conversation rate. On the other side of the ice, Florida ranks 29th in the NHL in pk% allowing goals 26.5 percent of the time. In their win over Pittsburgh, the Penguins scored one power play goal, in a game where the Panthers had 14 PIM.
So the equation seems simple enough, the execution on the other hand could be an issue. Tonight has the feel of a “show me” game. The narrative around the Panthers so far has been, they have disappointed so far this season, they are a much better team than their record would indicate and they simply haven’t yet gotten into a grove. Going against a similarly struggling Sabres team the Panthers have a chance to prove their mettle. If they truly are a playoff team, they will be able to beat a reeling opponent on their, the Panthers’, home ice. Tonight Florida can prove their win over the Penguins was no fluke and with a win tonight, Florida could possibly end the night only one point off the Southeast division lead. A loss? Well a loss might indicate that the Panthers are not the team we thought they were and indicate that it is time to re-evaluate expectations. Of course win or lose, it might not mean anything in the long run, so who knows.
UPDATE: Here is the projected line up for the Cats tonight, per NHL.com: