While these clubs have had something of an Eastern Conference rivalry the past few seasons, starting in the 2013-2014 season the Bolts and Sabres may be division opponents in the new Central Division of the new Eastern Conference, along with the rest of the current Northeast Division, the Florida Panthers, and the Detroit Red Wings.
The Bolts will be looking to improve on their 6-3-1 home record tonight at the Tampa Bay Times forum before heading on the road against some of the toughest teams in the East – the Rangers, Bruins, Devils, and Penguins.
Gathering two points tonight should help establish a tone for the forthcoming road trip which could end up being a critical juncture in the shortened season.
The Lightning are currently tied with the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division lead. Both clubs have 19 points but the Canes currently have a game in hand; they face off against the Washington Capitals tonight.
With the Southeast Division mired in mediocrity yet again, it appears the only path to the playoffs for the Bolts is to win the division and steal the 3rd spot in the conference even though there are likely to be one or more teams with more points in the East and a lower seed.
While Tampa Bay has clung to playoff aspirations, Buffalo has been in an outright freefall.
Just 6-12-1 on the season and 3-7-0 in their last 10 games, the Sabres played poorly enough to get their long-time head coach Lindy Ruff fired. He had been behind the bench in Buffalo since 1997.
Interim coach Ron Rolston, formerly head coach of the Sabres' AHL affiliate the Rochester Americans, has yet to win a game as the Sabres bench boss and will look to fix that tonight in Tampa.
— Erik Erlendsson (@erlendssonTBO) February 26, 2013
The decision comes just a game after Anders Lindback was pulled in the first period after allowing three goals on 10 shots to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Garon came in to relieve Lindback and played well enough to let the Lightning claw back before eventually losing 5-3 after an empty net goal.
While the Lightning offense continues to hum along and the special teams are improving, better and more consistent goaltending continues to be an issue for a club that is too often forced to score 5 goals in order to win a game.
The Sabres' Thomas Vanek – always a Lightning killer – is 4th in the league in goals and 3rd in points. FInding a way to contain Vanek will be a key to a Lightning victory tonight in Tampa.
The puck drops at 7:00 PM EST.
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