The last time the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres met early in the season, they both had different head coaches and were both on the path to the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Fast forward almost three months and both the Panthers and the Sabres are not much better off in the standings, but are much better off elsewhere. Ted Nolan has taken over behind the bench for Buffalo, and the team is playing better overall, working much harder and playing a stronger forechecking system. The Panthers, under the guidance of head coach Peter Horachek, have done almost a complete 180, winning a bunch of games in December and putting themselves back into a position to possibly make a run at a bottom seed in the East.
The Panthers dropped the first contest 3-1 to the Sabres back on October 25, but this game should be winnable for the Cats. The key here will be to not come in thinking they're the better team, as Buffalo has surprised some other clubs that were certainly better (Washington, Phoenix, Boston come to mind). The Panthers have to play a complete 60 minutes and do their best to get in the face of goaltender Jonas Enroth, who is getting the nod over US Olympian Ryan Miller. Tim Thomas is getting the start for Florida, his fourth in a row.
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UPDATES: Shawn Matthias will be a healthy scratch.
Players to Watch
Matt Moulson - Pretty much the only Sabre worth talking about except for Cody Hodgson (on IR) and Ryan Miller, Moulson is the scoring winger Buffalo really needed opposite Tomas Vanek.... except they shipped out Vanek to get him. He's been a decent performer for the Sabres since the trade but really needs help and needs Hodgson back in the lineup. Still, he is no doubt a sniper regardless, and the Panthers will have to keep him off the scoresheet.
Aleksander Barkov - Can he and his linemates keep up this killer pace? He's leading the Panthers in scoring and has a six-game points streak going (1G, 6A). He's playing better two-way hockey than arguably anyone on the team, and that's definitely why he's getting more ice time and better opportunities under Peter Horachek. Barkov's starting to get it and is turning into a point-per-game player as of late. He's the top-flight centerman the Panthers have coveted since Dale Tallon took over, and the sky's the limit.
Shawn Matthias - Matty's been really, really quiet. No points in six games and a minus three while playing fourth line minutes. Matthias has to find a way to rise above the fourth line status and start hustling and creating scoring chances. You see him at his best when he's using his skating and size to create opportunities for himself and his linemates, and he hasn't been doing enough of that as of late.
Zemgus Girgensons - Another highly-touted rookie who's gaining NHL experience on a losing club, Girgensons has a respectable 14 points through 41 games and is averaging just over 14 minutes of ice time per game. He's a solid two-way player like Barkov, but doesn't seem quite ready for the NHL, or for being counted on for production on a team that barely has any production throughout the rest of the lineup. Still, there's no doubt that Girgensons will be a solid NHL'er for years to come, and Buffalo has several players like him in the minors waiting to help rebuild the struggling club.