EDMONTON, Alberta – Tankapalooza. Tanker’s Paradise. The McEichel Bowl. The Tin Cup final.
Come up with whatever name you can. It might be more enticing than the actual product we’ll see on the ice Thursday night in Rexall Place, the once-glorious Northlands Coliseum that was the site of classic 1980s hockey among the best ever produced by the NHL.
An otherwise mundane January game with no playoff impact between the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers is suddenly full of all kinds of implications that will make it a talking point around the league.
The capsule look at what’s at stake reads like this:
• It is game 49 for both teams on the 82-game schedule. Edmonton (12-27-9) is 29th in the NHL’s overall standing with 33 points while the Sabres (14-31-3) have lost a franchise-record 12 straight games in regulation and are dead last with 31. A loss tonight would set a new club mark for longest winless streak, breaking the 0-8-4 stretch Buffalo endured in 1991.
• Last place, of course, gives that team an 20 percent chance at the No. 1 pick in the NHL’s draft lottery in April. But more important, it guarantees a top-two pick come June. Lose the lottery, and ostensibly the chance to draft Erie Otters phenom Connor McDavid, and you’re sure to get Boston University stud Jack Eichel. Finish 29th and your 100 percent chance at a McEichel pick drops to just 33.5 percent. If someone outside the bottom two wins the lottery, No. 29 falls out of McEichel range entirely to 28.
• Even if they win Thursday in regulation, the Sabres will still be 30th. The teams would be equal in points but Edmonton would hold 29th for now on the basis of a better goal differential, the fourth tiebreaker.
• The Sabres had a 10-point lead over Edmonton as recently as Dec. 29. But the Oilers have gone 5-5-2 in their last 12 games thanks in part to new coach Todd Nelson and the acquisition of former Buffalo center Derek Roy. Meanwhile, the Sabres have floundered at 0-12 to fall two points back. Buffalo is 0-10 in January with two games left and has never gone winless in a month of at least eight games in its history.
The backdrop to the game, of course, is the pervasive feeling among many segments of both fan bases that losing is actually winning. Especially in this contest because of the McEichel factor. The Sabres already have one loss to Edmonton, a 3-2 defeat Nov. 7 in First Niagara Center, and a second would prop another tiebreaker the Oilers’ way.
As you would imagine, neither team was thrilled to hear about the sidelight to Thursday’s game after practice here Wednesday.
“That’s no factor in our room. No one is looking at the draft,” said Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. “We’re focusing on game by game and trying to win every game we can. And you know what? The bottom line is that if we were playing better before, we wouldn’t be in this position in the first place. We’re not playing for last here.”
Oilers goaltender Ben Scrivens, whose brutal start to the season contributed to just one win in a 21-game stretch and the firing of coach Dallas Eakins, was furious at the thought. Scrivens apologized to reporters asking the questions and then let the tanking segments of fans and media in both cities have a piece of his mind.
“If anybody even insinuated to me ... that I was trying not to win or was going, ‘Hey, you should take tonight off,’ we’d have a fight,” Scrivens said. “That’s the most unbelievable thing you can say to a professional is ‘try not to win this game.’ It’s mind-blowing that people even think that we’re not trying to win.”
Scrivens was talking calmly but the bite of his words was growing and he was really getting warmed up.
“Maybe I’ll label some people but it’s people who’ve never played competitively,” Scrivens said. “It’s people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, people who have never played a competitive game in their life and they’re trying to say you should tank a game? It’s head-shaking. Really.”
Sabres coach Ted Nolan also acknowledged the chatter, clearly fueled in Buffalo by the open wooing of McDavid from General Manager Tim Murray and the franchise as a whole.
“If I’m trying to lose, then something’s wrong,” said Nolan. “There’s nights you want to try to get better. Rebuilds aren’t easy. Look at here in Edmonton. ... It’s a tough league to win in. It’s tough enough to win, let alone trying to lose.”
The Sabres are now dealing with a new problem: No one wants to be the team to allow them to break their skid, the longest in the league since Pittsburgh dropped 13 straight in 2003.
“We mentioned that to the team a couple times in the last few games,” Nolan said about opponents. “They sense a team coming in that’s a little wounded, a little hurt so it’s, ‘Let’s jump on them early and continue to hurt them.’ ”
The Sabres have been outscored, 53-17, during their 12-game slide to never-never land. It’s 21-8 over the last four games and was 3-0 in Tuesday’s 4-1 loss at Calgary as Buffalo disintegrated in the third period.
The Flames had three goals in the final 20 minutes while the Sabres had three shot attempts. Seriously. The shots on goal were 15-2 for Calgary and attempts were an astounding 28-3.
“It looked like we were a little tentative and worried to make a mistake,” said winger Tyler Ennis, an Edmonton native playing at home Thursday. “When you’re worried, that’s when things happened. We talked after the game to just be confident. What’s the worst that can happen?”