Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
The last time the Buffalo Sabres and the Arizona Coyotes met it was "The Battle for the Basement" at First Niagara Center on March 26th. The 'Yotes were coming to town with a 1-4 record in the previous five games, 2-7-1 in the previous 10. They'd started out with a 9-12-3 record through November then went 5-7-1 in December, but things went south. After a 3-7-2 January and two wins to start out February, the tank was on.
Arizona went into the 2015 trade deadline on a nine-game losing streak and by the end of the day, March 2nd, 'Yotes GM Don Maloney had effectively purged his club of veterans for a return of picks and prospects. Not to be outdone, Sabres GM Tim Murray did the same and the two teams would hook up for a game just over three weeks later.
As all Sabres fans will remember, it was the game that had the hometown fans openly cheering for the 'Yotes to win while decked out in their Sabres regalia. Arizona's Sam Gagner won the game in overtime to the cheers of Sabres fans. Afterwards amidst the sharp words and noble stances taken by both sides of the "Tank Nation" argument, there was a sense of finality as Buffalo was now six points behind Arizona in the standing with only eight games remaining. Most couldn't see Buffalo leading a game for six minutes much less getting six points.
When all was said and done, the Sabres finished 30th and after Edmonton won the Draft Lottery from the 28th-hole, Buffalo was able to pick Jack Eichel with the second overall pick in the 2015 Draft while Arizona snagged Dylan Strome.
Both teams enter tonight's matchup with young teams lead by some highly-skilled young talent. We all know about Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen, but the 'Yotes have some exceptional talent as well featuring No. 1 defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, budding superstars Max Domi, who leads the team in scoring with 21 points (8+13,) and Anthony Duclair who's tied with Domi for second on the team in goals with eight.
The 'Yotes also boast some familiar faces on the roster in goalie Anders Lindback, who played very well for Buffalo last season in a short, 16-game stint, and loveable (snicker, snicker) bruiser John Scott who played for Arizona AGM Darcy Regier's Sarbes when he was in Buffalo two seasons ago. The 6'4" 215 lb. Smith looks to get the start for Arizona tonight while Scott will be up in the press box keeping tabs on the growing number of All-Star leading votes he's getting.
The Sabres have improved to the point where the national media's beginning to take notice. ESPN's Craig Custance just penned a piece entitled Five reasons for the Sabres' quick turnaround. The Sabres had just lost to the Detroit Red Wings and Custance was intrigued by not only how far Buffalo has come, but the driving forces behind it. He lists Ristolainen as emerging as a star, assistant coach Terry Murray helping to lay a foundation like he did in Los Angeles and Evander Kane finding a center that can help him be him, among other things. You could add in Josh Gorges, whom Custance mentioned a couple of times, as well as he's been playing extremely well on the top-paring with Ristolainen.
This game, unlike the last F'N Center matchup will be more of a "traditional" game than the last as the home fans will actually be cheering for their team to win. In finishing off a piece I did last season when the two met at Buffalo, I mentioned that "most [of the 2014-15 season] will be forgotten, though, as time lessens the mild pangs and dulls the memories especially as the Buffalo Sabres focus upon the "build" portion of the re-build."
I then asked the question, "Was it all worth it?"
Tonight's projected lineup:
Evander Kane-Ryan O'Reilly-Sam Reinhart
Brian Gionta-Jak Eichel-Jamie McGinn
Johan Larsson-Zemgus Girgensons-Matt Moulson
Nic Deslauriers-David Legwand-Marcus Foligno
Rasmus Ristolainen, Josh Gorges
Zach Bogosian, Carlo Colaiacovo
Cody Franson, Jake McCabe
Forward Tim Schaller was sent to Rochester to get some playing time tonight, according to WGR's Paul Hamilton, and a forward will be called up after tonight's game. Rochester is hosting the Toronto Marlies (TOR) on Star Wars Night tonight.
Of the candidates in Rochester for the call, Phil Varone is second to Cal O'Reilly (brother of Ryan) in points this season so he looks like a likely candidate, but I wouldn't dismiss LW Jean Dupuy (2 goals, 8 assists, team-leading plus-7) making his NHL debut. The 6'2" 207 lb. Dupuy has played extremely well as of late and it would be a great opportunity for the team to see if his defensive style augmented by some offensive acumen, will translate to the NHL.