BUFFALO — With the Lightning playing the first of back-to-back games tonight, coach Jon Cooper was asked who he planned to have in net against the Sabres.
“The Moose is loose,” Cooper deadpanned, referring to the nickname of backup goaltender Brian Elliott.
The decision is about more than saving starter Andrei Vasilevskiy for Tuesday’s rematch in Boston against the Bruins, who handed the Lightning a humbling 5-3 home loss a week ago.
Elliott’s career numbers against the Sabres are eye-popping. In 26 games versus Buffalo, Elliott is 19-4-2 with a 1.90 goals-against average and 9.35 save percentage. He has played more games against the Sabres than any other team in his 16-year NHL career.
Elliott faced the Sabres on Nov. 5 and earned the win, saving 21 of 24 shots in a 5-3 Lightning victory. In that game, Elliott played better than his numbers indicated; two of the goals scored against him came after the Lightning failed to protect the front of the net, and the other was on a deflection.
Elliott has done a superb job backing up Vasilevskiy. He heads into tonight having won his last four starts in net (4-1-0 on the season). The Lightning have earned points in 18 of his 23 decisions (15-5-3) over his two seasons in Tampa Bay.
The Lightning also will have defenseman Nick Perbix — who scored his first career NHL goal in the last meeting against the Sabres, a score that ended up being the game-winner — back in the lineup after missing the last three games with a lower-body injury. Forward Cole Koepke, who missed the last three games with an upper-body injury, also could return.
Even though center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is back with the team following a brief personal leave of absence, he was skating with the injured players and the scratches at the end of morning skate, so it doesn’t appear he will return to action tonight.
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