The Buffalo Sabres still face the tough task of trying to get back in the Eastern Conference playoff picture with their workhorse goaltender sidelined.
But they’re hoping a vital victory in their most recent game has provided some momentum going into their meeting Saturday night with the visiting Atlanta Thrashers, who have a chance to match their longest winning streak of the season.
Things looked bleak for Buffalo (34-27-7) when Ryan Miller suffered a high ankle sprain in a win over the New York Rangers on Feb. 21, going 2-4-1 in their first seven games with Patrick Lalime starting in his place.
The Sabres allowed a combined 11 goals in back-to-back losses before bouncing back Thursday night with a 3-1 victory over Florida, notching two important points in what captain Craig Rivet called “the biggest game of the year.”
Currently in 10th place in the East, the Sabres trail Florida by two points and the Rangers and Carolina by three. Fifth-place Montreal is only five points ahead of Buffalo.
“We needed this game to get us back in it,” Rivet said. “We still have a ways to go but we’re going to keep pushing.”
A continuation of their recent success at home would certainly help, as the Sabres have outscored opponents 13-3 during their three-game winning streak at HSBC Arena. They are 10-3-0 at home in 2009.
Lalime, especially, has played better there, stopping 97 of 100 shots during the home winning streak. He’ll remain the Sabres’ primary option in net for the foreseeable future, with no timetable yet on Miller’s return.
Lalime made 30 saves against Florida, turning away all 23 of the Panthers’ shots in the final two periods. He may need a similar effort against Atlanta, which is out of playoff contention but has won four straight for the first time since a season-best five-game streak in November.
Atlanta, though, will be missing its best player. Captain Ilya Kovalchuk - the team leader with 36 goals and 78 points - will not play after aggravating an upper-body injury during Thursday’s 4-3 overtime victory against Edmonton.
“Ilya Kovalchuk aggravated a lingering upper body injury that he has skated with in recent games,” general manager Don Waddell said in a statement. “It’s not serious but he is returning to Atlanta for rest and will be re-evaluated on Monday before determining his status for Monday’s home game against Washington.”
Kovalchuk’s 15 goals and 13 assists in his previous 14 games were the most points in the NHL over that span, and he will be sorely missed in Atlanta’s offense.
The Thrashers overcame Kovalchuk’s departure to beat the Oilers on Marty Reasoner’s goal with 50 seconds left in overtime.
“We’re playing for next season, playing for pride, but the last five games are the best we’ve played all year,” Hedberg said.
Atlanta was outscored 16-1 in its two visits to HSBC Arena last season, but the Thrashers won 5-4 in overtime there on Nov. 7 - their second victory over the Sabres beyond regulation this season. The teams haven’t met since.