The Buffalo Sabres and Phoenix Coyotes have spent recent postseasons watching other teams compete for the Stanley Cup, but both clubs have returned to contention behind workhorse goaltenders having career seasons.
Buffalo's Ryan Miller and Phoenix's Ilya Bryzgalov are likely to square off for the second time in their careers Monday as the Sabres look to earn at least a point for an 11th straight game.
The Sabres (29-11-6) narrowly missed the playoffs the last two seasons, but with a 10-point lead atop the Northeast Division, they are in excellent position to end that drought.
They have been especially sharp lately, going 7-0-3 since Christmas and 17-4-4 since Thanksgiving with Miller leading the way. The likely starter for the United States at the Vancouver Olympics ranks second in the NHL with a career-best 2.01 goals-against average.
Miller made 36 saves to help Buffalo earn a point in a 3-2 shootout road loss to the New York Islanders on Saturday night. He remained confident even after allowing four goals on eight opportunities in the tiebreaker.
"I'm not going to be banging my head off the wall too hard. I set those guys up pretty well," Miller said. "From my perspective they were fortunate to get a puck by me."
The Sabres were playing the second game of a season-high seven-game trip, but Miller has been at his best on the road this season, going 12-4-1 with a 1.86 GAA.
He is 2-0-0 with a 0.50 GAA in two career starts against the Coyotes, making 23 saves in a 2-1 home win Oct. 8 after stopping 28 shots in a 2-0 victory in his only visit to Glendale on Jan. 31.
Bryzgalov made 19 saves in that game, but backup Jason LaBarbera faced the Sabres earlier this season.
Bryzgalov was alongside Miller among the league leaders in GAA before some struggles to start 2010. He has a 3.99 GAA in six starts this month, allowing four goals four times in that stretch -- something he had done five times in his first 36 starts.
Bryzgalov, who still ranks among the NHL's top five in wins and is three shy of matching his career high, struggled in making 18 saves against Minnesota on Saturday night, but his teammates helped him out in a 6-4 win.
"I'm sure neither coach is overly impressed with the defense in the game but it's nice to win," Phoenix captain Shane Doan said. "We're making it a little more difficult than we have to on ourselves."
Phoenix improved to 18-7-2 at Jobing.com Arena despite having the league's lowest average attendance. The Coyotes (28-16-5) haven't reached the playoffs since 2002, but are in fifth place in the Western Conference.
The club's chances of returning to the postseason should only be helped by Ed Jovanovski being back in the lineup.
Jovanovski notched a career-high four assists Saturday in his return from a two-game suspension, logging a team-high 23 minutes of ice time.
"Phenomenal," coach Dave Tippett said of the defenseman, who leads Phoenix with 0.7 points per game. "He just eats up so many minutes. The best thing I can say about him is your team loves him on the ice and the other team hates him on the ice."