Tim Gleason of the Carolina Hurricanes has played in front of goaltender Cam Ward for five seasons, doing the dirty, gritty work of a defenseman.

A year ago, he played with Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller for Team USA - and was his roommate - during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Gleason calls both friends and says the two are much alike in their play and in their temperament.

"They're very competitive," Gleason said Wednesday. "And they're great in big games, both of them."

Tonight's game qualifies as a big one. The Hurricanes (30-25-9) are eighth in the NHL's Eastern Conference with 69 points. The Sabres (30-25-7) are ninth, two points behind, with two games in hand and victories in seven of their last eight road games.

Said Canes captain Eric Staal, "It's a huge game. Both sides know that."

The teams are pretty similar. Both have two productive offensive lines, a dependable checking line and a physical, grinding fourth line. Both are solid enough on defense. Both feel they helped themselves with recent trades.

Ward wears No. 30. So does Miller. Tonight, it's likely one will be the difference in what should be a tense, tight-checking game.

Ward, who turned 27 on Tuesday, leads NHL goalies in games played (57), saves (1,693) and shots against (1,841). He had 41 saves Tuesday in the Canes' 2-1 victory over the Florida Panthers, making 18 stops in the third period.

Talk about seeing a lot of rubber. Ward has faced 40 or more shots 13 times this season - he did it only four times in 47 games last year.

"We're going to give up slightly above average on shots based on faceoff percentage and puck control," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "But the number of shots we give up is a big concern and has been all year."

Gleason leads the Canes with 109 blocked shots after stopping five against the Panthers, and he said some tougher work in the defensive zone to help Ward is a must down the stretch.