As shouts of joy echoed from the dressing room behind him Monday night, Sabres defenseman Tyson Strachan walked past assistant coach Tom Coolen in the hallway.
“One out of seven!” Strachan said with a smile, with the words bringing a matching grin to Coolen’s face.
It’s clear the team that has spent two seasons failing to win is determined to do it for the next six games – much to the chagrin of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel fans.
Buffalo’s convincing 4-1 victory over the Arizona Coyotes sent the Sabres back home feeling mighty good about themselves. They partied hard in Gila River Arena, cranking the music while singing and dancing along. Every win is something to treasure for a last-place team, but it was obvious this victory carried special significance.
“Yeah, for sure,” captain Brian Gionta said. “We worked hard for it. Like we’ve said all along, there’s character in this room and everybody’s pushing hard ’til the end. There’s a lot of pride in here.”
Plenty of folks are worried the jolt of pride could cost Buffalo a guaranteed shot at McDavid or Eichel. The Sabres climbed to within four points of 29th-place Arizona, with one fewer game played. They’ll make it up Wednesday night when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit First Niagara Center.
“There’s what, six games left?” Sabres left wing Nicolas Deslauriers said. “We’ve got one win. We’ll try to get six other ones.”
The Coyotes own the tiebreaker of regulation/overtime wins (18-13), so the Sabres would need to pass Arizona to avoid the basement. The 30th-place team gets either the first or second pick in the NHL Draft.
Buffalo’s players hated finishing at the bottom last season, and those who remain don’t want to be back-to-back cellar -dwellers. Newcomers like Anders Lindback have noticed.
“You don’t want to be last,” said the goaltender, who stopped 28 of 29 shots Monday. “All these guys are here for a reason. They’re good hockey players and winners. They want to win. That’s why you make it to this league.”
While the Sabres were a desperate, hungry team Monday, the Coyotes were awful. Perhaps the return home after a week out East caused the lethargy. Maybe the Sabres just want to avoid 30th more than them.
The final two weeks of the season won’t be easy for either team. Here’s the breakdown:
• Strength of schedule - The Coyotes’ remaining five opponents (San Jose twice, Calgary, Vancouver and Anaheim) have a points percentage of .594. The Sabres’ six opponents (Toronto, Chicago, New York Islanders, Carolina, Columbus and Pittsburgh) are at .542.
• Playoff teams – Buffalo and Arizona each have to face three playoff teams. The Sabres will host Chicago, visit the Islanders and close the season at home against Pittsburgh. Arizona visits Calgary and Vancouver before wrapping up the year at home against Anaheim.
The season ends April 11 for both clubs..
• Home games – Arizona plays two of its five games at home, the Sabres play four of their six at home.
It’ll be interesting to see if the games in Buffalo are a help or hindrance to the Sabres. They were taken aback and peeved that folks wearing Blue and Gold rooted for the Coyotes last week. With the stakes remaining high, the atmosphere should remain mixed.
Wednesday night’s game likely won’t be an accurate measuring stick because Leafs fans always invade downtown and cheer against Buffalo.
The Coyotes have performed slightly better away from the desert. They are 13-22-3 on the road and 10-24-5 at home. The Sabres are 12-20-5 in Buffalo and 9-27-3 on the road.
The last road game was perhaps Buffalo’s best of the season. The Sabres took a 31-19 shot edge into the third period, and the play seemed more lopsided than that.
“All around, it was probably one of our best games lately,” Deslauriers said. “We had confidence, and Lindy just played phenomenal.”
Lindback made several stellar saves while keeping the Sabres up, 2-1. Lindback improved to 2-5-2 with Buffalo, numbers that fail to reflect his stellar .926 save percentage since being acquired in February.
“He looked like a true NHL No. 1 goaltender,” coach Ted Nolan said.
Andrej Meszaros, Rasmus Ristolainen and Gionta are also on hot streaks. After scoring just three goals in his opening 52 games with the Sabres,
Meszaros has four in four periods. Ristolainen has goals in three straight games. Gionta has four goals and nine points in his last eight games.
“They’re a real good group of guys,” Nolan said. “We’ve got a real young team. We’ve got some guys trying to prove themselves in this league. We’ve got some veterans trying to teach them the way.
“We’ve been giving what we have to give, and it’s great to see that when you give it you get rewarded for it.”