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Game 31 Preview And Open Thread: Blackhawks @ Sabres

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Puck Drop: Dec. 15, 6:00 PM CST


Chicago Blackhawks
Record: 15-13-2
Points: 32
Place: 4th in Central, 11th in Western Conference
Power Play Percentage/Rank: 19.5%, 12th in NHL
Penalty Kill Percentage/Rank: 84.7%, 8th in NHL
Blackhawks Team Statistics

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Buffalo Sabres
Record: 15-14-1
Points: 30
Place: 5th in Northeast, t-11th in Eastern Conference
Power Play Percentage/Rank: 20%, 10th in NHL
Penalty Kill Percentage/Rank: 82.3%, 14th in NHL
Sabres Team Statistics

Hawks Lineup:

Offense
1st line: LW Byfuglien - C Lang - RW Havlat
2nd line: LW Sharp - C Toews - RW Kane
3rd line: LW Ruutu - C Bolland - RW Burish
4th line: LW Samsonov/Koci - C Perreault - RW Lapointe

Defense

1st pairing: Keith/Seabrook
2nd pairing: Zyuzin/Sopel
3rd pairing: Vandermeer/Wisniewski

Goalie

Khabibulin

Scratches: Johansson (healthy), Samsonov/Koci (healthy)
Injured Reserve: Bourque, Adams, Williams, Dowell

I'm sure it'll be an exciting/nerve racking night for Patrick Kane tonight. He'll be playing in his hometown of Buffalo for the first time in his young NHL career. He's expecting 30-40 of his friends to be there, along with family. He hasn't scored a goal in 13 straight games, but I have a feeling tonight will be the game where he finally breaks out of it.

The Hawks have lost their last four road games, with their last road win coming on Thanksgiving in Calgary. The Sabres just played last night in Washington, so they may be a little fatigued tonight. If that's the case, hopefully the Hawks can take advantage early, get a lead and put some pressure on Buffalo.

David Olesky, the writer for SB Nation's Sabres blog, Die By The Blade, answered five of my questions about the Sabres while I answered five of his, as well. You can read my answers over on his blog. Meanwhile, here was some of his insight on Buffalo:

SCH: It's been surprising to see the Sabres start out with just a 15-14-1 record so far this season after being the best team in the East last year. What is the main reason that Buffalo has gotten off to a bit of a rough start?

David: It is well known that the Sabres lost both of their captains Chris Drury and Danny Briere and many people point to that for the Sabres slow start. Truth be told it is a small part of the Sabres problems.  The Sabres have struggled with consistency in every aspect of the game, one game the defense will be awful and the forwards will play well and the next night they trade off.  Ryan Miller has not been as good as he has been the previous two seasons either.  Miller is aware of his struggles and says he was focusing too much attention on being a leader instead of on his game.  I believe that Miller is struggling because he doesn't have anyone behind him to push him and he needs to feel that pressure.

SCH: Sabres goalie Ryan Miller has had a tough start in goal this year, with just 11 wins in his first 25 starts. Can this mainly be attributed to his own effort, or is the defense in front of him not getting the job done?

David: As I stated in the first answer there are a couple of reasons for Miller's struggles but mainly just the lack of competition behind him.  Miller has played better as of late something I attribute to be being pushed by himself.  The team is struggling and Miller is taking the weight on his shoulders.  Many players crumble under pressure but I think Miller is the complete opposite and he thrives under pressure.

SCH: Buffalo lost Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, two quality players, to free agency over the off-season. Have the Sabres had trouble filling the void created since those two went elsewhere?

David: If I said these two guys weren't missed I'd be lying but it is not the sole reason for the Sabres play.  Briere is obviously off to a hot start for the Flyers but I think it's Drury who the Sabres miss more.  Drury meant more to this team than points he meant the difference between wins and losses. Chris Drury was the ultimate team guy although he voluntarily left the situation in Buffalo unfinished.  If I sound bitter I apologize but I take the loss of Drury personally.

SCH: Lindy Ruff gets a lot of credit around the NHL for being one of the better coaches in the game, perhaps even the single best in the league. What do you think he has done in his time in Buffalo to earn himself that type of reputation?

David: Let me start by saying that I feel that Lindy Ruff is the best coach in hockey.  I'm sure I am slightly biased but his record speaks for itself.  He has taken the Sabres to the conference finals four times in nine years and once he took them to the Stanley Cup.  What I think is most impressive about Ruff is his ability to adapt, the Sabres were a defense first team when they had Dominic Hasek as a backstop and after the lockout they became a run-n-gun team that scored a lot of goals. I can't think of another coach that could adapt to two completely different styles of play the way Ruff can.

SCH: Maxim Afinogenov had sort of a breakout year last year with the Sabres, albeit in an injury-shortened season. However, this season, he has just 4 goals in 29 games. What exactly is the reason for this scoring slump, and what does he need to do to snap out of it?

David: He scored number five last night and hopefully that is just one of many to come.  Afinogenov has always been a streaky player and he happens to be in a bit of a slump.  I think Afinogenov is one of the hardest working guys on the ice and he just needs to continue to play his game and get shots on net, the goals will come. The worst thing he could do right now is get frustrated because he has a tendency to push too hard.  

Also, ESPN.com's Scott Burnside has a nice article today on Kane and Jonathan Toews and how they have helped revitalize hockey in Chicago. It's been great seeing some national attention on the Blackhawks lately, and I would expect it to continue.