TAMPA, Fla. — The Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning are just one point apart in the NHL standings, out of the playoff picture but headed in different directions as they try to stay in the wild-card hunt in the second half of the season.
The Lightning (19-19-4) have lost four straight and allowed 22 goals in those games — they allowed six or more goals just once in their first 38 games, but now have done it three times in the last four — while the Sabres (16-15-9) are 3-0-1 in their last four.
“We want to be a relentless, aggressive, fast, hard team to play against, that keeps coming at you for 60 minutes,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Wednesday. “That’s when we’re at our best. We’re getting there.”
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The Lightning are at the other extreme, struggling defensively in front of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who started 10 straight games since Ben Bishop was sidelined. Tampa Bay went 4-1-1 in the first six, but has lost the last four, and Bishop is expected to return either Thursday or Friday against the red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets.
“This is the most difficult stretch we’ve had since we’ve been here. It’s not a lot of fun,” Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said Wednesday. “There’s only one way out of it. You’ve got to work your way out of it.”
The Lightning will try to do that in a difficult stretch — after Columbus on Friday, they play six straight on the road, including games against three teams atop divisions in the Western Conference in Chicago, San Jose and Anaheim. Having a break over the last three days gave Tampa Bay a rest it has sorely needed.
“I just think that a couple of days off has given the guys some fresh legs,” Bowness said. “Tired bodies are a little more rested.”
One advantage the Lightning can hope to make the most of is their power play, which is the second-best in the NHL, converting on 23.5 percent of their chances. That will go up against a weak spot for Buffalo, which ranks last in the league in penalty kill, allowing goals on 26 percent of opposing power plays.
The Lightning’s struggles on defense may need to be addressed before the trade deadline — in reaching the Eastern finals last year, they ranked fifth in the NHL with 2.41 goals allowed per game; this year, they’ve dropped to 25th, allowing 2.98, despite largely the same lineup in goal and on the blue line.
Buffalo is scoring more, with three players tied for the team lead at 27 points in right wing Kyle Okposo (team-best 12 goals), defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (team-best 24 assists) and 21-year-old center Sam Reinhart, who has nine goals. The Sabres will be without goalie Robin Lehner, who is ill and didn’t make the trip, so it’s likely Anders Nilsson in net against Tampa Bay.