If the Carolina Hurricanes are going to make a successful charge to a playoff spot, games like tonight’s, on the road at the Buffalo Sabres, are the ones they absolutely cannot afford to lose.
Rod Brind’Amour has talked about his team needing to learn to win, and this is one of those games where that skill is put to the test. Win, and you’re potentially within a single point of a playoff spot (the Blue Jackets visit the Coyotes tonight); lose, and at best it remains a three-point gap, with an additional team between you and the cut line.
With that in mind, the lineup that shut out the Pittsburgh Penguins two nights ago will look remarkably similar. Brind’Amour has spoken about possibly getting Haydn Fleury into some games during this road trip, and this might be the night to do it, but without a morning skate we won’t know until the warmup if Fleury will join the lineup, presumably at the expense of Trevor van Riemsdyk.
Petr Mrazek would typically be the logical starter tonight, but with a back-to-back Mike Bales will ride the hot hand of Curtis McElhinney, saving Mrazek for tomorrow night at Madison Square Garden - where, you’ll recall, McElhinney was shelled three weeks ago.
Tonight is also a Cool Bars stop in Concord, so if you’re so inclined head that way and go enjoy the game in the company of Stormy, the Storm Squad and plenty of Hurricanes swag. Here’s how the Canes will line up:
Nino Niederreiter - Sebastian Aho - Justin Williams
Micheal Ferland - Lucas Wallmark - Teuvo Teravainen
Andrei Svechnikov - Jordan Martinook - Brock McGinn
Warren Foegele - Greg McKegg - Saku Maenalanen
Jaccob Slavin - Dougie Hamilton
Brett Pesce - Justin Faulk
Calvin de Haan - Trevor van Riemsdyk
Scratches: Haydn Fleury (healthy), Jordan Staal (IR upper-body)
As for the Sabres, there is a bit of irony in the fact that the Hurricanes visit Buffalo one night before their death march to midtown Manhattan. Carolina holds a seven-game winning streak over the Sabres dating to late in the 2015-16 season, and if that streak stretches to eight, the Sabres are going to be in deep trouble.
At one time, the Sabres were flying high this season, reaching a high-water mark of fourth in the league in late November. As recently as January 19, they were still five points above the Hurricanes and neck and neck with the Canadiens. Since then, though, the Sabres have suffered standings pinches on both sides: above them, the Canadiens have opened up an eight-point lead in the race for third in the Atlantic Division, and a 4-1-1 run by the Hurricanes have left the Sabres gasping for air and desperately in need of a win tonight.
To get that, though, they’ll need to overcome a malaise that has lingered for over a month. Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News points out that the Sabres haven’t won back-to-back games in nearly two months, and Phil Housley recently had to break the glass on the emergency option: breaking up the pairing of Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel for the first time all season. They seem likely to reunite tonight, but simply making that call in the first place shows how dire the situation is.
Backup Linus Ullmark will get the start in net tonight, his first-ever start against the Hurricanes. The Sabres also did not take a morning skate today, but Harrington also reports that Johan Larsson will return to the lineup tonight, relegating Tage Thompson - part of the return in the Ryan O’Reilly deal last summer - to the press box. Here’s how the Sabres lined up at practice yesterday, making changes where we know they are occurring:
Jeff Skinner - Jack Eichel - Jason Pominville
Conor Sheary - Casey Mittelstadt - Sam Reinhart
C.J. Smith - Evan Rodrigues - Kyle Okposo
Zemgus Girgensons - Johan Larsson - Vladimir Sobotka
Rasmus Dahlin - Rasmus Ristolainen
Lawrence Pilut - Zach Bogosian
Marco Scandella - Jake McCabe
Scratches: Tage Thompson (healthy), Nathan Beaulieu (healthy), Matt Hunwick (healthy), Casey Nelson (IR upper-body)