Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning takes on the Buffalo Sabres

(Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP) (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP) (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images) /

The Tampa Bay Lightning kicks off their second of three home games as they take on the Buffalo Sabres tonight at the Amalie Arena.

The Tampa Bay Lightning will look to extend their win streak against the Buffalo Sabres to six games when they host the Sabres in Amalie Arena Monday night. The Lightning, who haven’t lost to Buffalo since November 13 of last year, will play their third game against Buffalo this month. These two teams became quite familiar with one another earlier this month when they played back to back games at the NHL Global Series in Sweden.

The Lightning will have to win without their leading scorer and captain, Steven Stamkos. Stamkos has not played since he re-aggravated a lower-body injury during the first period of the Lightning’s 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday.

The two teams have trended in opposite directions since clashing in Sweden. Including their two wins over the Sabres, the Lightning have won five of their last seven games. Meanwhile, the Sabres fresh of a win against the Florida Panthers, have dropped six out of their last eight contests and have only won two games during the month of November.

A win on Monday night will give the Lightning their third win in a row before heading into a tough stretch of games that includes facing the Western Conference leading St. Louis Blues and Eastern Conferences leading Washington Capitals in consecutive games.

Expect the Lightning to enter the game with 11 forwards and 7 defensemen. Coach Jon Cooper has used this deployment the last two games after the Lightning began dealing with injuries to all-star forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. If Stamkos is unable to play, forward Cory Conacher will likely play in his third game of the season.

Despite their recent wins, which have all come against teams that currently sit outside of the playoffs, the Lightning are still struggling to find ways of limiting their opponent’s scoring chances. Most recently Tampa was outshot 38 to 27 by an Anaheim Ducks team that has dropped eight of their last nine contests. If not for a heroic effort by Andrei Vasilevksiy who stopped 36 of 38 shots, the game could have had a very different outcome.

Tampa is currently surrendering 33.8 shots per game this season. Good for fourth highest in the league.  Needless to say, this is a has been an ongoing area of concern. The Bolts will need to tighten up their defense and limit Buffalo’s scoring chances after they registered 43 shots in their last meeting.

To do this, the Lightning will have to limit their turnovers which, they have also struggled with all season. They will need to focus on making cleaner, safer passes in the neutral zone and provide stronger support of the puck carrier when making zone exits.

Hopefully, the struggling Sabres will afford the Lightning the time an opportunity to clean up their game before heading into a tough stretch of games to close out November.

Match-Up To Watch

It will be an interesting duel at the face-off dot tonight. Buffalo has, by far, the lowest face-off win percentage in the NHL. Meanwhile, the Lightning is one of the best teams around when it comes to winning face-offs. Tampa has won 51.2 percent of all draws this season, but there will be a huge gap in their lineup if they play without their captain, Steven Stamkos for a second straight game.

Stamkos has a 60.7 face-off win percentage. Good for third-best in the NHL. He has been used by Lightning Coach Jon Cooper as the go-to guy for face-offs in recent years. Often times he will be sent to take a draw and then immediately return to the bench. Without him in the lineup, the Bolts will need to find another go-to face-off guy.

Most notably, Anthony Cirelli will have to improve his face-offs, if the Lightning wants to remain one of the best face-off teams in the league in Stamkos’s absence. The young center has taken the most face-offs of any Lightning players this season with 287 to his credit, but has won just 45.7 percent of those. The lowest win rate of any Lightning player that regularly takes face-offs.

Another face-off option for the Lightning is Yanni Gourde. Gourde has the second-highest Faceoff Win Percentage on the Lightning behind Steven Stamkos at 54.3%. However, he has only taken 94 face-offs this season. The least of all for Tampa’s centers. Gourde’s time in the circle has been highly limited since the October 29th against the New York Rangers.

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However, Gourde has seen his playing time increase dramatically over the last three games with injuries to Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Over the last three games, he has averaged 17:54 minutes of ice-time per game. That’s well over three minutes more than his season average time-on-ice of 14:35 per game. It will be interesting to see if more ice time leads to more face-offs for Gourde, who has proven to be highly proficient in the face-off circle the past two seasons.