It's hard to believe the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres have split four meetings given they are separated by 64 points at opposite ends of the NHL's overall standings.
The Bruins can capture the season series and more importantly secure the Presidents' Trophy on Saturday if they can defeat the visiting Sabres.
Boston (53-18-9) claimed its lone Presidents' Trophy in 1989-90. The Bruins figure to be in good position to finally win it again since league-worst Buffalo (21-50-9) has lost five straight and is 2-15-1 with one regulation victory in its last 18 games.
But while the gap in the standings between these Atlantic Division rivals is substantial, it hasn't translated to the ice. The Sabres have been narrowly outscored 15-12 by Boston, winning 4-2 on Dec. 19 and 5-4 in overtime Feb. 26.
The Bruins are also seeking to avoid their first three-game skid after dropping shootouts on a two-game trip to Minnesota and Winnipeg, losing 2-1 to the Jets on Thursday. They know their play has been sporadic as the postseason looms.
"It just feels like we're not prepared, and we should be," said winger Brad Marchand, whose club is 1-1-3 this month. "We're still fighting for the top of the league and we want to make sure we finish there. So we've got to be a lot more prepared for the next game and make sure that we come out at our best."
Marchand also said that the last contest "felt more like an exhibition game," and part of the problem may be that Boston has been resting key players down the stretch.
Captain Zdeno Chara was a healthy scratch in Winnipeg, Patrice Bergeron sat out with an undisclosed injury and Chris Kelly was out with a minor back injury.
"Those guys are obviously leaders of the team and good players for us night in and night out and we value their presence, especially when they're not in the lineup," center Gregory Campbell said. "But that shouldn't be an excuse for our team. We're a good team and we're built to compete every night."
Coach Claude Julien had Chad Johnson start Thursday and figures to give each of his goalies one in this back-to-back set with a visit to New Jersey on tap Sunday.
Johnson has started all three road games against the Sabres with Tuukka Rask getting the lone one at home, snapping a personal five-game skid to Buffalo with a 4-1 win Dec. 21. Rask is 5-0-1 with a 0.82 goals-against average in his last six home starts.
Buffalo's latest defeat was Thursday's 2-1 road loss to the New York Rangers. The Sabres were outshot 18-1 in a dismal second period but played better in the third with an 11-3 edge, though they allowed Rick Nash's game-winner with 1:42 left.
"It's embarrassing so we've got to man up, everyone in here, and pour it on," said winger Drew Stafford, who scored the Sabres' goal. "We've got a couple more chances here to finish strong but unfortunately we let this one slip away."
Goalie Matt Hackett has started the last two games for Buffalo since Nathan Lieuwen suffered a concussion in Sunday's 5-2 loss at Philadelphia. Hackett has never faced Boston.