A couple of teams trying to build off recent good play hook up at Madison Square Garden tonight when the Rangers (9-8-2, 20 pts) host the Buffalo Sabres (9-12-1, 19 pts) in the first of three meetings this season. The Rangers snapped a four-game slide Thursday with a convincing 4-1 victory over the Lightning, while the Sabres---coming off Saturday's 4-3 shootout win over the Devils---are riding a season-high three-game winning streak.
Buoyed by the return of Rick Nash---as well as Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto---the Rangers stormed the Lightning on Thursday, outshooting their counterparts from Tampa Bay 20-3 in the first period and 42-25 overall. The much-anticipated return of Nash to the lineup was a tremendous boost to the Blueshirts, as Nash not only scored a goal and added an assist while firing 12 shots on goal, it was how he imposed his will on the game and how his teammates followed suit that was most impressive.
Head coach John Tortorella also really liked how his lines balanced out with the return of Nash---as well as that of Darroll Powe on Tuesday night---and how each line played a role in the victory---the Rangers first in five games (1-3-1). Nash teamed with Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin on an impressive top line, while Derek Stepan centered Ryan Callahan and Taylor Pyatt on a line that controlled the puck seemingly at will all game long. Brian Boyle was in the middle of Marian Gaborik and J.T. Miller, and that line performed exceptionally well, too, with the rookie Miller receiving high praise from his coach after the contest. And Stu Bickel moved to the fourth line from his defense position, got into a scrap with BJ Crombeen, while his linemates Jeff Halpern and Powe saved their most important contributions for the penalty killing unit which went a perfect three-for-three against a very skilled Lightning power play.
Tortorella said that he plans to stick with those line combinations to start tonight against a Sabres team the Blueshirts beat three of four times in 2011-12. The Rangers swept both games played up in Buffalo a year ago, and split the pair at The Garden---winning 3-2 on Callahan's overtime goal on February 25th before losing 4-1 on March 23rd.
The Sabres are not thinking of last year, however. After finishing out of the playoff mix with 89 points last season, and then getting off to a very sluggish start in 2013, long time head coach Lindy Ruff was fired and replaced by Ron Rolston on February 20th. Ruff had been the longest-serving coach in the NHL before being replaced, having been the Sabres head coach for more than 15 years.
Buffalo was 6-10-1 when Ruff was fired, and then lost its first two games under Rolston---getting outscored 7-1 in the process. But the Sabres have rebounded, winning three in a row entering play this evening, with their two most recent victories over the Devils and Panthers coming via the shootout with goaltender Ryan Miller backstopping the wins. Though Miller leads the league with ten losses and has struggled a bit with a 2.82 goals against average, he is still the backbone of the Sabres and will be the linchpin for any potential run to the playoffs the Sabres make this season.
Thomas Vanek, the league's third-leading scorer with 27 points, did not play Saturday against the Devils due to an upper body injury. To take his place in the lineup the Sabres recalled rookie Brian Flynn, who logged nearly nine minutes in his NHL debut after leading the Rochester Americans with 16 goals and 32 points down in the minor leagues this season. Team captain Jason Pominville scored twice on Saturday and now has nine goals and 17 points in 22 games in 2013.
Will the Rangers build off their impressive win Thursday and play another solid game Sunday? Or can the Sabres up their winning streak to four games? Share your predictions and keys to the game below.