Sabres-Panthers Preview (Dec 20, 2016)

SUNRISE, Fla. — Not much has gone right so far this season for the reigning Atlantic Division champions, the Florida Panthers.

But the Panthers (14-13-5) do lead the league in one category at least – most road games played (19).

Florida finally returns home after playing 13 of its past 17 games on the road to host the Buffalo Sabres (12-11-7) on Tuesday.

Now, though, the trend goes the other way. The Panthers will play eight of their next nine games at home.

Will being at home matter?

The Panthers are 8-5-0 at home and 6-8-5 on the road. So, yes, maybe that extra bit of success at home can get Florida back in playoff position.

After all, the Panthers reside just four points behind the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic, which would be good enough for a playoff berth.

Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie told the Sun-Sentinel that stringing together wins is the focus.

“We can be in pretty good position in 15 days. But we have a lot of work to do to climb the standings,” he said.

It would certainly help the Panthers if they could get healthy. Jonathan Huberdeau, who normally skates on Florida’s top line with Jaromir Jagr and Aleksander Barkov, is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. Defenseman Alex Petrovic, who was off to a great start and is still a team-best plus-8, is recovering from a broken foot.

Both players are about a month away.

A third injured Panthers player – forward Jonathan Marchessault – is trying to come back from a groin injury. He missed four games, returned for one and then missed the past two after aggravating his injury. Despite the time missed, he still leads the team with 10 goals.

Buffalo, meanwhile, is led by 22-year-old defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who is fifth in the NHL in minutes played. He also entered Monday ranked fifth in the NHL in points by a defenseman with 21.

Ristolainen has two goals and 10 assists in his past nine games, and a lot of his damage comes on the power play. He is 13th in the NHL with 12 power-play points.

“You are seeing him develop into a force,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Saturday. “He’s our shut-down guy. He’s a horse back there — very tough to play against.”

Ristolainen, who is just one point behind Kyle Okposo for the team lead, is part of a young Sabres’ core that also includes centers Jack Eichel, 20, and Sam Reinhart, 21.

Eichel, who was the second overall pick in the 2015 draft, has five goals and three assists. But injuries have limited Eichel to just nine games. He missed the first six weeks of the season but is now healthy, producing two goals and one assist last Tuesday against the Los Angeles Kings.

Reinhart, who was the second overall pick in the 2014 draft, has six goals and nine assists in 30 games.

Those young Sabres will match sticks and skills with the 44-year-old Jagr, who is just three points shy of Mark Messier for No. 2 on the NHL all-time list. Only Wayne Gretzky ranks ahead of Messier.