Ten points out of third place in the Atlantic Division and also the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, the Buffalo Sabres begin a make-it-or-break-it stretch that features nine of their next 10 games at home on Tuesday night when they host the struggling Ottawa Senators.
Buffalo, which is 14-6-3 on its home ice this season, kicks off a five-game homestand against an Ottawa squad that has just one regulation win in its last 11 games (1-5-5). The Senators will also be playing the second game of a back-to-back set that began with a 4-3 shootout loss to visiting New Jersey on Monday night.
"It is an opportunity that we all know will decide which direction this season goes, and we need to jump and be an outstanding home team here for the next few weeks," Buffalo coach Ralph Krueger said.
Krueger said his team, which finished a so-so 21-15-5 at KeyBank Center last season, has put a strong emphasis on improving its home record this season.
"I have to say that what we feel is a real comfort here playing in front of our home crowd and playing in our building," Krueger said. "We made it a goal this year to make it a difficult place to play in, and we believe it is that, and we need to feed on that and make sure we don't get (too) comfortable being at home, either."
The Sabres should get a boost with the return of forward Jeff Skinner from an upper-body injury sustained in a collision with Boston's David Pastrnak on Dec. 27.
Skinner, who scored a career-high 40 goals last season, has 11 goals and eight assists so far this season but failed to score a goal in his last 11 games before the injury absence.
"His re-entry will be exciting for us," Krueger said. "It gives us more depth in scoring and more offensive punch."
Skinner added, "We've got a big opportunity, I think. It's a big home stretch. Coming off (a 10-day break and the All-Star Game), guys should be refreshed. Hopefully we can get off to a good start here and get some momentum on our side and sort of roll with that."
Ottawa, despite getting two short-handed goals from Vladislav Namestnikov and Chris Tierney in a 35-second span in the third period on Monday to take a 3-2 lead, still wound up losing. Kyle Palmieri put in a rebound to tie it with 3:21 left in regulation, and Jack Hughes scored to seal the shootout win for New Jersey.
"You've got to learn to close teams out," Ottawa coach D.J. Smith said. "That's one we'd like to have back, especially after the momentum of scoring those goals."
The Devils finished with a 53-35 edge in shots on goal, and Senators goalie Marcus Hogberg made a career-high 50 saves.
"Thought we gave them way too much off the rush," Smith said. "It wasn't zone time, it was rush. Their top guys -- Palmieri, (Nico) Hischier -- they just had the puck way too much. ... We had five penalties tonight. That's way too many penalties."
--Field Level Media