The Tampa Bay Lightning appear to be on the verge of missing the playoffs for a second year in a row. But with a coaching change, they hope they can follow the cue of the Buffalo Sabres, who continue to turn things around after their own mid-season ousting.
Before Jon Cooper makes his coaching debut, the Lighting face a Sabres team that enters Tuesday night's matchup having won 12 of 15 meetings at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
The 27 points by the Lightning (13-18-1) are the league's third-fewest as they've lost 11 of their last 15 contests - including each of the last three. They fired Gary Boucher on Sunday morning prior to a 3-2 loss at Winnipeg, and named Cooper as his replacement on Monday.
Cooper has led Syracuse, Tampa Bay's top minor-league affiliate, to the AHL's best record, and was also named the league's coach of the year last season after leading Norfolk to the Calder Cup.
Assistants Dan Lacroix and Steve Thomas will assume coaching duties for Tuesday's game, as Cooper's first game behind the bench will not be until Friday against New Jersey.
"He has had success at every level he has coached and is extremely familiar with our organization, as well as our players," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "He has a tremendous record at all levels and we feel he is ready to make the move to the NHL."
The Sabres' season also seemed in dire straits with a 6-10-1 start, but they've revived their playoff push with better play under interim coach Ron Rolston since firing Lindy Ruff on Feb. 20. Buffalo (13-15-4), which defeated Montreal 2-1 on Saturday for its third straight win, has gone 7-5-3 under Rolston and sits three points out of a playoff spot.
"We know we have a long way to go," said Thomas Vanek, who has 12 points in his last seven contests against the Lightning. "Any time you can pick up two points and consecutively three games in a row, it feels good. But there's a lot of work left. We've just got to pick up points and see what happens at the end. But we need help as well."
Buffalo's power play still ranks last in the league, scoring on 12.9 percent of its chances, but appears to be on the rise. The Sabres have scored power-play goals in four straight games.
Tampa Bay's power play started hot out of the gates - tallying 13 goals on 36 chances in the first eight games - but the unit has since slowed. The Lightning are 1 for 20 over their last six. They've also struggled to score with the advantage in the last six meetings with Buffalo, going scoreless on 17 chances.
They failed on all six opportunities with the extra skater in the lone meeting this season, a 2-1 home loss on Feb. 26.
Tyler Ennis is on a four-game point streak for Buffalo with two goals and four assists. Cody Hodgson, who recorded a goal and an assist in the teams' first meeting, has four assists in his last two games.
Defenseman Andrej Sekera, the Sabres' second-leading points scorer among its blueliners with eight, has missed the last four games with an upper-body injury.
Ryan Miller, who stopped 38 shots on Saturday, has started each of Buffalo's 15 games at Tampa Bay since 2005-06, going 12-3-0 with a 2.38 goals-against average.