The Buffalo Sabres are playing as well as any team in the Eastern Conference, and they got their six-game road trip off to a positive start with a win their last time out.
Given their recent history at Tampa Bay, anything less than a victory on their next stop would be a major disappointment.
The All-Star break will interrupt the Sabres’ longest trip of the season this weekend, but first they’ll try to pad their momentum Wednesday by winning their eighth straight road game against the Lightning.
Buffalo (24-17-5) has gone 7-2-0 in its last nine games, compiling an East-best 14 points since the start of January.
The best news for the Sabres has been their excellent play on the road, which is where they’ve spent much of the past month. Buffalo is 4-2-0 away from HSBC Arena in January, and its only two losses have come to Western heavyweights Detroit and Chicago.
The Sabres’ road-heavy month isn’t done. They kicked off their six-game stretch Monday at Florida, a trip that will take a six-day hiatus for the All-Star break after Wednesday’s stop in Tampa.
Buffalo had its hands full against the Panthers, who tied the score at 2 with less than four minutes left in the third period. After a scoreless overtime, Ales Kotalik and Derek Roy scored in a shootout and Ryan Miller stopped both shots he saw to give the Sabres a 3-2 win.
“It starts with Ryan making the saves,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “You get a big save and get a goal, that pumps Ryan up. When you see him on the road get the first save and you get the next one, that puts a lot of pressure back on the home team. … Ryan’s done a good job on the shootout.”
Miller is 6-1 in shootouts this season, picking up three wins that way since Jan. 9.
Considering how woeful Tampa Bay (15-21-10) has been against Buffalo recently, it doesn’t seem likely Miller will have to go past regulation to pick up a win. He’s 13-2-0 with a 2.64 GAA in his career against the Lightning, and has been in net for Buffalo’s seven straight road wins in the series.
Miller did have a rough outing against Tampa Bay in Buffalo on Oct. 30, allowing three early goals in a 5-2 loss. But he picked up wins against the Lightning five days apart last month, winning 4-3 on Dec. 6 and 4-2 on Dec. 10.
The bigger concern for Tampa Bay should be Thomas Vanek. The left wing, who’s third in the league with 28 goals, has dominated the Lightning over the past year, totaling 10 goals in five games - including two hat tricks.
Tampa Bay is only a point up on Atlanta for fourth place in the Southeast Division, but has won four of its last six games, including two of three on its five-game homestand.
The Lightning got a short-handed goal in the first period from captain Vincent Lecavalier on Monday against Dallas, but trailed 2-1 heading to the third. Tampa Bay, however, scored three goals in the final 10 minutes - including a power-play tally from Lecavalier - and won 4-2.
“That was a big game for us,” interim coach Rick Tocchet told the team’s official Web site. “We’re thin on defense and guys had to play a lot of minutes, so the win is huge for us.”
Lecavalier has four goals and two assists in his last three games. He has seven goals and eight assists in his last 10 games against Buffalo.