SABRES (11-14-3) at FLAMES (11-14-2)
TV: MSG-B, SN360 (7:00 PM MT)
Season series: The Buffalo Sabres and Calgary Flames each won at home to split the 2014-15 series. The Sabres defeated Calgary 4-3 on Dec. 11 and the Flames won 4-1 on Jan. 27. Forward Tyler Ennis led the Sabres with four assists. Joe Colborne had two goals and an assist for the Flames.
Sabres team scope: Coach Dan Bylsma reunited rookie Jack Eichel with Evander Kane in practice on Wednesday, according to WGR 550 Radio. The two started the season on the same line, but were recently split up. They had a few shifts in together in the third period of the Sabres’ 5-2 loss against the Vancouver Canucks on Monday and took line rushes alongside Brian Gionta in practice. Jamie McGinn was playing with Eichel, but instead has replaced Kane on a line with Cal O’Reilly and Sam Reinhart. The Sabres continue to be without injured goalie Robin Lehner (ankle), defenceman Mark Pysyk (lower body) and forward Tyler Ennis (upper body). Buffalo has lost the first two of a three-game trip through Western Canada. Veteran forward Matt Moulson has not scored in 16 games.
Flames team scope: Defenceman Kris Russell, who has missed the past two games with a hand injury, did not practice on Wednesday. Defenceman TJ Brodie also was absent for a maintenance day and goalie Jonas Hiller left early because of sickness. The Flames have won the first three games of a five-game homestand for their longest winning streak of the season; they have won their last seven at games at home for their longest streak since winning eight in a row from Feb. 23 to March 27, 2013. Captain Mark Giordano has been one of the catalysts for the Flames, with two goals and five points in his past five games. “His game has definitely come back,” coach Bob Hartley told the Flames website. “He missed a lot of hockey [last season]. There’s no timeline to regain your game shape or your form or your confidence.”
Continued success at home has propelled the Calgary Flames to a modest winning streak that also happens to be their longest of the season.
The Flames can record a fourth straight victory by extending their run at home to eight Thursday night against the Buffalo Sabres, whom they’ve dominated at the Saddledome in recent years.
Though still among the NHL’s bottom dwellers, Calgary (11-14-2) has gone 8-5-1 since a slow start, defeating San Jose 4-2 at home Tuesday to continue its improved play.
While its win streak is short in length, it’s huge for the psyche of a club that had high expectations after snapping a five-year playoff drought last season.
“It’s like a boxer that takes a real good one on the jaw in the first second of a fight,” coach Bob Hartley told the Flames’ official website. “Right now, we’re pulling out of the hole that we created for ourselves … I like the way we’re progressing as a team.”
That progression has yielded the seven-game run at home – the club’s longest since winning eight straight Feb. 23-March 27, 2013. Mikael Backlund had a goal and an assist Tuesday while Mark Giordano and Dennis Wideman each added two assists in the Flames’ first regulation victory in seven games.
”Winning seven in a row at home gives you a nice confidence boost,” said Backlund, who has half of his four goals in the last three games. “We’ve been playing some good hockey.”
Calgary has 12 non-shootout goals in the first three games of this five-game homestand. It scored 19 in dropping six of the previous nine overall.
“We knew we had a good team,” Backlund said. “What we did last year was really good and we wanted to build on that. Having this streak at home is huge for us. We always hoped we’d have a good season and always believed in ourselves.”
The Flames’ league-worst power play, however, has gone 2 for 35 in the last 10 games after scoring once on seven chances against the Sharks.
Buffalo (11-14-3) has allowed one power-play goal in four of the last five contests.
The Sabres fell to Edmonton and Vancouver in the first two of their three-game trip, and they’ve been outscored 21-7 during a five-game skid at Calgary. Buffalo has lost seven of eight there, scoring two or fewer goals in each game.
The Sabres opened the scoring in the last two games but failed to take further advantage.
”We want better within this room,” said veteran forward Brian Gionta, who scored Buffalo’s first goal in Monday’s 5-2 loss to the Canucks. “We know we’re capable of that, so that’s why it’s so disappointing.”
The Sabres also need to improve defensively, having allowed 15 non-shootout goals in the past four games.
Rookie Linus Ullmark made 26 saves Monday and has a 3.23 goals-against average while losing his last six starts. Teammate Chad Johnson posted a 1.33 GAA during a three-game winning streak that ended with Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Oilers, and he’s expected to start this game.
Gionta has two goals and two assists in the last six contests.