A chance to move into the second Eastern Conference wild-card spot is on the line when the Buffalo Sabres face the Florida Panthers on Friday in Sunrise, Fla.
The Sabres are coming off a 6-5 overtime win against the host Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, a victory that moved them to within two points of the Detroit Red Wings, who currently sit in the final wild-card position, and the Panthers.
A victory in regulation against Florida would put Buffalo in a tie with Detroit and Florida in points, but the Sabres have four games in hand on the Panthers and three games in hand on the Red Wings.
“We try to push to the playoffs right now and it’s so important for us,” said Buffalo defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin, who scored the game-winner against the Lightning on a short-handed breakaway. “We need it. Game by game and we try to get in a better spot.”
Tage Thompson notched his league-leading fourth hat trick of the season in the win against Tampa Bay, setting a career high with 39 goals and increasing his career-best point total to 75.
“For me, when I’m skating up the ice, I’m just trying to get open, find a spot and most of the time (defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and winger Jeff Skinner) will find you,” he said. “It was one of those nights where everything was coming to me.”
Florida hasn’t played since earning a 4-3 overtime win against the visiting Anaheim Ducks on Monday. The Panthers have alternated wins and losses over their past seven games. They haven’t won consecutive games since capturing three straight from Jan. 28-Feb. 9.
Despite the team’s up-and-down season, it’s been nothing but up for forward Carter Verhaeghe, who hit the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career when he scored in OT on Monday. He leads the Panthers in goals and is second on the team with 52 points, three points shy of his career high set last season.
“I always believe in myself and know that I have another gear,” Verhaeghe told the team’s website. “The more I play, the more I can get better. That’s been pretty much my whole career. I’m just trying to learn and find new ways to score. I want to be a better player ever day.”
It’s expected the Panthers will get a boost to their lineup against Buffalo, with forward Anthony Duclair in line to make his season debut after recovering from offseason surgery to repair an Achilles tendon injury.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “It’s been awhile. I’ve never been out long term like that. It’s definitely been a grind. I’ve learned a lot and grew from it. There’s a lot of emotions, especially this week. I feel back to where I was. I feel 100 percent. I feel great and I’m looking forward to it.”
The Panthers could also get center Sam Bennett back after a three-game absence caused by a lower-body injury. A decision on his status as well as that of captain Aleksander Barkov and forward Eric Staal will be made Friday.
Florida has allowed at least three goals in each of the past four games and in five of the past six.
–Field Level Media