Panthers-Sabres Preview

Offense hasn’t come easily for the Florida Panthers in the last two games, but those struggles came against two of the better defensive teams in hockey.

The Buffalo Sabres don’t fit that description, and their defensive-zone issues have gone from bad to worse in the last seven games.

The Atlantic Division foes meet Friday night in Buffalo, where the Panthers begin a season-long six-game road trip.

Florida (16-10-9) completed a 2-1-1 homestand to end 2014, but it was held to three goals in consecutive losses to Montreal and the New York Rangers.

Wednesday’s 5-2 loss to the Rangers featured 20 Panthers’ shots, their second-lowest total of the season.

"Most of the night the Rangers were all over us," coach Gerard Gallant told the team’s official website. "We were totally dominated. That’s the best team I’ve seen so far this year. They really took control of the game. They were skating and having four lines come against us all night. They forced a lot of our turnovers. … We got outworked and outcompeted for most of the night."

Jimmy Hayes remained hot, scoring for the fourth time in as many games. The big forward has 11 goals in 27 games, matching his 55-game total from last season. He still thinks the approach over the last few games has been off.

"We need to play more of a north-south game and be on top of their defense," Hayes said.

The Sabres (14-21-3), meanwhile, have been outscored 33-14 over a 1-5-1 stretch. The penalty kill has struggled, thwarting 13 of 21 chances in that time (61.9 percent).

They were limited to 11 shots in Wednesday’s 5-1 home loss to Tampa Bay and have averaged 18.5 shots in the last four games.

"You play the way we played tonight and some of the other nights lately, you don’t have a chance," defenseman Josh Gorges told the team’s official website. "It’s just not the right way to play hockey."

If it continues, it could make for another easy night for Roberto Luongo, who didn’t face the Rangers. The Florida goaltender has dominated Buffalo with three shutouts in his last four games against them. He’s 5-0-0 with a 1.38 goals-against average in his past six meetings.

Luongo’s had to work harder recently with five of his last seven games going to shootouts, but he’s come through it with a 5-1-1 record and 2.04 GAA.

Counterpart Jhonas Enroth hasn’t been as strong lately with a 3.94 GAA over a 2-3-1 span. Enroth is 2-1-1 with a 1.47 GAA against the Panthers.

The Panthers have won five of the last six meetings, including two of three in the season series, but the Sabres won the latest meeting 4-3 in overtime in Buffalo on Dec. 13.

Buffalo captain Brian Gionta has scored in the last two matchups, but he’s been out for four games because of a head injury. That’s just the beginning of the Sabres’ injury and illness issues, and coach Ted Nolan is planning on shuffling lines to try to help the team out of the rut that’s followed 10-3-0 stretch.

"Hopefully by shaking it up, we get a different result," Nolan said. "Everything’s a little bit out of whack, but by switching it up here today, hopefully, we’ll settle the waters down here a little bit and get back to the way we were (playing)."

Rasmus Ristolainen is likely to return for the Sabres after missing two games with the flu, but the defenseman has a minus-8 rating in his last seven games.