Less than a month ago, the Boston Bruins were in danger of falling out of the playoff race.
Now, they are closing in on first place in the Eastern Conference.
The surging Bruins try to extend a six-game home unbeaten streak when they face the Buffalo Sabres for the third time this month.
After completing December with a 3-7-5 record, Boston was close to dropping out of the top eight spots in the conference. The Bruins, however, have picked up their play considerably in 2004, going 8-1-1 to move within striking distance of East-leading Toronto.
“Any time you lose your best player, it’s tough,” Bruins coach Mike Sullivan said. “Obviously, Joe is a huge part of this team and everybody knows that. I thought from top to bottom everybody stepped up their game and helped make up for that loss.”
Thornton, the team leader with 44 points, was scratched after suffering a fractured left cheekbone in a fight with Rangers center Eric Lindros in Monday’s 5-2 victory. Thornton had surgery on his broken right cheekbone Thursday and is expected to miss at least two more games.
Raycroft figured to split time with veteran Felix Potvin this season, but the rookie seems to have seized the starting job. Raycroft has allowed eight goals during his six-game winning streak after going winless in his previous seven decisions (0-5-2).
The Bruins, 5-0-1 in their last six home games overall, are 5-0-1 in their last six at home against the Sabres.
Buffalo’s fading playoff chances took another hit Tuesday with a 4-1 loss at Atlanta.
The loss was the third straight and fourth in five games for the Sabres, who have dropped seven points behind the New York Islanders for the final playoff berth.
“The less we win the more important the next game gets,” Buffalo’s Jochen Hecht said.
Winning on the road is one of the biggest problems facing the Sabres, 0-5-1 in their last six away from home and 7-15-2 this season.
STANDINGS (through Jan. 20): Sabres - 42 points, 5th place, 19 PB, Northeast Division. Bruins - 58 points, 3rd place, 3 PB, Northeast Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Sabres - Daniel Briere and Miroslav Satan, 15 goals; Chris Drury, 19 assists; Briere, 32 points; Andrew Peters, 102 PIM. Bruins - Brian Rolston, 14 goals; Thornton, 33 assists and 44 points; Doug Doull, 81 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS (through Jan. 20): Sabres - Power play: 13.2 percent (27 for 204), 24th in NHL. Penalty killing: 84.3 percent (172 for 204), 16th. Bruins - Power play: 15.7 percent (28 for 178), 11th. Penalty killing: 83.2 percent (153 for 184), 21st.
SEASON SERIES: Bruins, 2-0.
LAST MEETING: Jan. 15; Bruins, 1-0. At Buffalo, N.Y., Potvin stopped 27 shots for his 31st career shutout and Sergei Samsonov scored in the second period to lead Boston.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Sabres - 7-15-2-0 on the road; Bruins - 9-6-7-1 at home.