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It was a given Lindy Ruff would be a candidate whenever an NHL coaching job became vacant. No one, however, could have assumed his potential first game would be against the Buffalo Sabres.

Buffalo’s former coach is a top contender to take over the Tampa Bay Lightning after they fired Guy Boucher on Sunday. Ruff, let go by the Sabres last month after 16 years on the job, joined Tampa’s minor-league coach, Jon Cooper, as most likely to step behind the Lightning bench.

The Sabres play in Tampa on Tuesday.

“I’m hopeful that I can get something in place as quickly as possible, and I’m not looking to drag things out,” Tampa Bay Vice President and General Manager Steve Yzerman said at a news conference in Winnipeg. “I have an idea of what I want to do and a plan for what I want to do, and I’m trying to get that accomplished as soon as possible.”

Tampa played Sunday night in Winnipeg under assistant coaches Martin Raymond and Dan Lacroix, but Yzerman wants a permanent bench boss.

“I am going to hire and name a head coach for the remainder of this year and years to come,” Yzerman said. “I’d prefer to stay away from even discussing the candidates. For whoever may be sitting out there, it’s disconcerting for them. I know what I want, and I will try to get that done as quickly as possible.”

Yzerman and Ruff have worked together. Yzerman was executive director of Canada’s Olympic team in 2010, and Ruff was an assistant coach for the gold-medal winners. The connection further fueled speculation that Ruff could return to the state where he began his career as an assistant for the Florida Panthers.

Ruff has avoided the spotlight since a farewell news conference Feb. 22, two days after being fired. He said he definitely wanted to return to coaching after taking time to clear his head.

The Tampa job opened after one of the league’s top-scoring teams continued to lose. The Lightning began the season 6-2, but they’ve since gone 7-15-1. The fatal blow for Boucher, who was in his third season, came after his club gave up four goals in the first period Saturday and lost to Ottawa, 5-3.

“I’ve noticed a difference in our play, a difference in the attitude just as an observation of our players, and felt the situation is worsening and quickly worsening, and something needs to be done immediately,” Yzerman said.

Tampa Bay boasts offensive stars such as Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Canisius College product Cory Conacher. They’ve helped the team average 3.26 goals per game, which ranked third in the NHL entering Sunday’s schedule.

Boucher’s 1-3-1 defensive scheme couldn’t overcome poor goaltending, however. The Lightning was letting in 3.03 goals per contest, which ranked 24th.

“There’s a certain type of play, certain style of play I’m expecting from our team with the type of players we’re putting out there,” Yzerman said.

Ruff is primarily regarded as a defensive-minded coach, but his resume also includes offensive success. The Sabres ranked in the top five in scoring for three straight seasons (2005-06 to '07-08), including first overall during their President’s Trophy season of 2006-07.

Cooper, meanwhile, has won at every level. He has been named Coach of the Year in the American Hockey League, United States Hockey League and North American Hockey League.

The Lightning’s minor-leaguers won the AHL title last season. They finished 55-18-3, which included 28 straight victories, and outscored opponents, 273-180. Syracuse leads the AHL this season at 39-18-8.

Cooper, however, has no NHL experience. Boucher was also a rising minor-league coaching star when Yzerman hired him, so the GM might be interested in someone with a proven record at the top level.

The Sabres spent Sunday lounging in the sun after winning in Montreal a night earlier, their fourth victory in six games. The 3-2 win featured their 11th one-goal game in the last 13 outings. They are 6-2-3 in the close contests.

“It seriously seems like all our games are one goal, and they’re only going to get tighter because everybody’s making that playoff push, playing that much harder,” center Tyler Ennis said. “A lot of games are tight, a lot of three-point games where we’re going to need to put some wins together if we want to catch teams.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com