There are ten games on the NHL lineup tonight, but none is larger for the teams involved than the 7:30 p.m. tilt between Buffalo and Carolina. The game takes place at the HSBC Arena in Buffalo, and that could be a cause for concern for the Hurricanes. Carolina is 1-6-2 in their nine road games since February 1. While neither the offense nor defense is solely to blame, it is worth noting that team captain and star center Eric Staal has only one multi-point game in that span, home or away (a 19 game span).
The Sabres, on the other hand, have been trending upward since the sale of the team to Terry Pegula last month. Buffalo concluded a 7-game road trip on Saturday, and came home for a 6-4 win over Ottawa on Sunday. Throw in the emotional passing of franchise legend and French Connection member Rick Martin, and the team is in full us-against-the-world mode. But what is on the line for both teams is more than just two points, but instead an opportunity to go a long way toward qualifying for the playoffs, which of course offer opportunities for team building and maybe even conference glory considering the vulnerability of eastern teams this season.
Buffalo sits in a 7th place tie with the New York Rangers, who play at home tonight against the Islanders. Buffalo has a game in hand on the Rangers, and therefore can expect to need a win tonight to keep pace, and something of a cushion between themselves and the dreaded 9th spot.
That 9th spot currently belongs to the Hurricanes, who come into tonight’s game with 72 points and also that one game in hand on NYR. For the Canes, tonight’s game is as close to a must-win as one could see in game 70 of a regular season. Should Carolina take zero points from tonight’s game, they risk falling six points out of the last playoff spot. While that is not insurmountable, Carolina does not have the luxury of facing the Rangers later in the year to make up two points on them. Buffalo does host NYR on March 30, before traveling to Carolina on April 3 for a rematch of tonight’s game.
As far as keys to the game go, the goaltenders don’t seem to want to give any insight as to the result of this one. Cam Ward and Ryan Miller have faced each other twice this year, splitting the games and sporting nearly identical GAAs (2.53 for Ward; 2.49 for Miller). The lone discernible difference may show up in the save percentage department, as Ward sports a healthy .922 against Buffalo, while Miller carries a slightly below average .906 versus the Canes. If Carolina is to avoid being outshot on the road tonight, then Staal should figure to play a key role with his size, speed, scoring ability (29 goals), and creativity (34 assists). If he cannot find a way to unlock the Sabre defense and get pucks past Ryan Miller, it should figure to be just another in a growing line of disappointment and missed opportunities away from home for the Hurricanes.
And that would suit Pegula and the surging Buffalo Sabres just fine. The game is tonight at 7:30 on Versus in the U.S.