While the Carolina Hurricanes have climbed to the top of the Southeast Division, staying there could prove difficult with their starting goalie sidelined.
The Hurricanes try to overcome Cam Ward's absence as they go for a season-best fourth consecutive win and three-game season sweep of the visiting Buffalo Sabres, who are hoping to have Thomas Vanek available Tuesday night.
Carolina (12-8-1) completed a home-and-home sweep of Florida with Sunday's 3-2 road win. That result, though, came at a steep cost for the Hurricanes, who saw Ward leave in the second period with a sprained knee.
Ward doesn't need surgery and is expected to miss six to eight weeks. He had gone 8-3-1 with a 2.38 goals-against average since the start of February.
"It kind of (stinks) to lose such a good goaltender, such a big piece to our team, and such a good person," said backup Dan Ellis, who has posted a 0.67 GAA in three wins and 6.68 GAA in two losses while starting five games.
The Hurricanes rank as one of the NHL's higher scoring teams with 3.0 goals per game and figure to rely on their offense all the more with Ward out. Captain Eric Staal and Alexander Semin combined for three goals and four assists in the sweep of the Panthers.
"We've got a lot of positive things in our game right now," coach Kirk Muller told the league's official website.
Carolina has killed 23 of its opponents' 24 power-play opportunities over the last eight games. The Hurricanes, though, have converted one of 25 chances during that stretch.
"When we're moving our feet and playing our game, we're not taking many penalties," Jordan Staal said after scoring his fifth goal Sunday. "That's what our game is."
Carolina also thrived during a home-and-home sweep of Buffalo (9-12-2) in the first week of the season. Eric Staal, who's notched 23 points in 22 meetings in the series since 2007-08, recorded a hat trick during a 6-3 win Jan. 24 and Ellis made a season-high 40 saves in a 3-1 victory the following night.
Carolina has gone 12-3-1 when Eric Staal has at least one point compared to 0-5-0 when he doesn't. He leads the team with 12 goals and 25 points.
Buffalo had won a season-best three straight before kicking off a four-game road trip with Sunday's 3-2 shootout loss to the New York Rangers.
"We need to come through with points," Ryan Miller said after stopping 26 of 28 shots.
While the Sabres could get a boost with Vanek hoping to return from a two-game absence due to an upper-body injury, they will be without Patrick Kaleta. The right wing was suspended five games without pay Monday for shoving Rangers forward Brad Richards from behind and into the boards.
"Obviously we've had some adversity already since I've been here with Vanek being out a couple of games, and other guys stepping into roles," interim coach Ron Rolston told the team's official website. "We have players that will go in and their opportunity will be there for them to help our team be successful. We'll do with whatever we have."
Leading Buffalo with 27 points, Vanek has recorded 29 over 28 career matchups against the Hurricanes. He's notched four goals and four assists during a six-game point streak in the series.
Miller is 1-4-1 with a 2.52 GAA over his last six starts versus Carolina.