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Three years after infamous game, it's still bottoms up for Sabres, Coyotes

Chad Johnson remembers his introduction to the Buffalo Sabres. How could he not?

"It was really rock bottom at that point as an organization and franchise," the goaltender said Tuesday.

Johnson arrived via trade in March 2015. The Tank was firing at full strength, and it was about to unleash its deadliest weapon. The Sabres hosted the Arizona Coyotes on March 26, 2015, and the fans in KeyBank Center cheered for the Coyotes.

The Sabres lost the battle of the bottom-feeders, falling six points behind Arizona and eventually finishing last overall. It earned them the No. 2 pick in the draft and franchise center Jack Eichel.

Three years later, the Sabres and Coyotes will meet again in Buffalo. Not much has changed. Buffalo is last with 58 points, Arizona is 30th with 59, and Wednesday's game could help determine the NHL's worst team.

It was not supposed to be this way.

"At the start of it, you evaluate the team, the team that's on paper," Johnson said of returning to Buffalo this season. "You talk to different people in the organization about where it's at, where it's heading.

"I talked to everybody, and I don't think anybody really expected it to be where we're at."

As the Sabres and Coyotes ready for another basement bout, it's a chance to reflect on how bad things have been. It's staggering.

This season, Buffalo is last in the NHL in goal differential (minus-64), goals (171), first-period goals (38) and winning percentage when the opponent scores first (.128), among other categories.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, Buffalo is last in the NHL in points, wins, goals and winning percentage in one-goal games, among other categories. The Sabres have the most regulation losses, of course, with their total of 212 hardly rivaled by anyone. Arizona is the second-worst team with 198.

"It's definitely not fun year after year kind of having the same feeling," said Sabres center Johan Larsson.

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Somewhat amazingly, Larsson, Johnson and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen are the only healthy players who remain from that infamous game against Arizona. Johnson was the backup to Matt Hackett. Ristolainen manned the blue line with Andrej Meszaros, Andre Benoit, Mike Weber, Nikita Zadorov and Zach Bogosian. The list of forwards included Cody Hodgson, Zac Dalpe, Mikhail Grigorenko, Matt Moulson and Phil Varone.

Similar turnover awaits because of the lingering troubles.

"You never know what happens in summer," Ristolainen said. "A lot of guys can be gone, but if you finish strong, get the confidence, you never know.

"It's frustrating, but there's not much you can do. Just try to get better, play hard and there's always next year."

While the Sabres and Coyotes are still looking toward next year, the atmosphere at their game will be different. In 2015, the last-place team was guaranteed the first or second spot in the draft. That meant Connor McDavid or Eichel.

The NHL has since tweaked the rules, and the last-place team can draft as low as fourth. The league has also lowered the odds of winning the lottery, with official numbers coming after the regular season. Last year, the last-place team had an 18 percent chance of winning. The 29th-place club had a 12.1 percent chance.

Neither won as the New Jersey Devils jumped from fifth to first. Philadelphia vaulted from 13th to second, and Dallas leaped from eighth to third.

As a result, Sabres fans will be cheering for the Sabres and not the Coyotes.

"I don't think it's going to be the same," Larsson said. "I want them to cheer for us, for sure. We're going to do everything to win it."

As rough as things have been for the Sabres and Coyotes, both teams see light. Arizona is 11-5-1 in its last 17 games. Buffalo is a more pedestrian 11-11-3 in its past 25, but that counts as progress after a 6-17-4 start.

Plus, Johnson says, it just feels different than when he first arrived. The change to General Manager Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley has helped in many places, though not the standings.

"Now there's good people in the organization that have won at this level," Johnson said. "The pieces are there. You've just got to get experience. You've got to have a high standard.

"I think that we're there. I think you see that late in the season when we've played to a basic standard and could compete in games."

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