TAMPA, Fla. - A late November showdown between the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning generally has meant little in recent years.
But when the two teams meet at Amalie Arena on Thursday, it will be a battle for the top overall spot in the league standings.
The surprising Sabres sit on top, tied with Toronto with 36 points, while the Lightning are right about where most prognosticators expected them to be -- near the top, one point behind.
Buffalo enters on a franchise-tying-best 10-game win streak after defeating San Jose in overtime on Tuesday. The Sabres have enjoyed a resurgence led by Jeff Skinner, who is tied for the league lead in goals with 19, and Jack Eichel, who is fifth in assists with 23.
Goaltender Carter Hutton has exhibited strong play in net, giving the team in front of him a boost of confidence with each save he makes.
"(The) last 10 games, when it's a tight game, we feel confident," defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen told the Olean Times Herald. "If we're down, we don't panic. We believe. We have the belief now.''
If the Sabres want to keep the streak alive, they will have to go through a Lightning team that is coming off a rare loss, falling 3-1 to the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday. That loss ended Tampa Bay's mild three-game winning streak and was just the second loss in seven games.
But the Lightning have proven to be a strong team when it comes to conference play. While Tampa Bay is 5-5-1 against Western Conference opponents, the Lightning are 12-2 against Eastern Conference teams. One of those losses, however, came courtesy of Buffalo, which defeated the Lightning on Nov. 13 by a 2-1 score.
Tampa Bay is on a season-long homestand of five games and will close it out by hosting the Sabres.
"Being at home, sleeping in your own bed, being in your own rink, I think it's nice being home this long a period of time,'' Tampa Bay defenseman Dan Girardi said. "Unfortunately, we couldn't pull off the win (Tuesday), but we have the chance to play a red-hot team in Buffalo on Thursday and finish off the home stand.''
The Lightning expect to get back top forward Ondrej Palat after he has missed the past 16 games with a lower-body injury suffered on Oct. 26 in Las Vegas. But Tampa Bay will remain without veteran defenseman Anton Stralman for at least another week. Stralman has been out since Nov. 10 with an undisclosed upper-body injury and will be evaluated again when the team returns home from a three-game road trip that begins on Saturday.
Louis Domingue expects to make his ninth consecutive start in net for Tampa Bay in the absence of Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is expected to miss at least another two weeks with a foot fracture. The Lightning did make a swap of goaltenders on Wednesday, calling up 2016 third-round pick Connor Ingram, who was named the American Hockey League player of the week on Monday.