CALGARY – Entering the game, this was not the ideal homecoming for Chad Johnson.
"I think everybody, especially at this point halfway through the season, is just disappointed, embarrassed by how things have gone so far," the Buffalo Sabres goaltender said Monday morning.
There was no way for Johnson to sugarcoat things as he returned to Calgary, the city where he spent his childhood and played last season. Disappointment and embarrassment abound for the last-place Sabres and their struggling netminder.
"We're trying to stick together, but it's been a really tough year personally and as a team," Johnson said in Scotiabank Saddledome.
Johnson entered Monday's start against the Calgary Flames with a 1-8-3 record for an 11-26-9 club. He hadn't won since Oct. 15, and his .877 save percentage ranks 58th of the 60 goaltenders who have appeared in 10 games.
It's far from what the 31-year-old envisioned when he returned to Buffalo. He went 22-16-4 with a .920 save percentage for the Sabres in 2015-16. He went 18-15-1 with a .910 for the Flames last season. Those numbers include a red-hot start of 13-4-1 with a .932 save percentage that helped Calgary make the playoffs.
"That's what makes it tough about this year," Johnson said. "The last two years I've kind of had my game and the results. … I was where I wanted to be. Now it's tough really to get that. I think everybody is that way on this team."
Playing for the lowest-scoring team in the NHL will hurt any goaltender's numbers, but Johnson hasn't helped himself. He's allowed three goals or more in 11 of his 17 appearances, contributing to a 3.85 goals-against average.
Johnson entered the season with a career GAA of 2.44.
"Every game you can get in, you have something to prove," Johnson said. "Everyone has something to prove, especially when we're in last place in the league right now. A lot of guys on this team are fighting for contracts, fighting for positions, fighting for new teams, fighting for whatever you're looking to do.
"There's going to be changes."
Johnson is among those fighting for a contract and, given his age, a career. He signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Sabres during the summer, but those figures will be hard to replicate come July 1.
He was hoping a return to Calgary could propel him toward a solid second half and a brighter future.
"This is always special being able to play in your hometown," Johnson said. "Obviously, having played here and having some success and friends on the team still and in the organization and stuff, it's always exciting to be back here, but a little more special knowing last year and how it went."
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Evander Kane figures to get a lot of attention this week. He's entering three hockey hotbeds in western Canada, including his hometown of Vancouver.
The time in the spotlight started in Calgary, and the Sabres forward delivered.
The discussion was how an inevitable trade could land Kane in his first playoff series. His smile stood out in a dressing room that hasn't seen many happy times.
"I come into the season every year, as I've done since I've started, hoping to play in the playoffs and envisioning that," said Kane, a nine-year veteran. "For me, it's taken a long time. I'm always looking forward to that opportunity. I think that's my type of hockey. I think I'm built for that as a player. Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to showcase that.
"For me, the prospect of that happening is obviously exciting. You have that excitement going into every year."
Kane is essentially the only player on the Sabres who's guaranteed to enjoy a playoff race. The pending free agent will be moved to a contender before the Feb. 26 trade deadline while the Sabres rebuild again.
"We didn't have the start obviously to the season that we wanted," Kane said. "We had some guys starting off hot, some guys starting off a little slower. It's tough when you don't get off to a good start to make up that ground.
"For us, it's just kind of snowballed. We've had some bad luck, and there's been some nights also that we haven't competed the way we need to do at this level. For us, it's important to start playing with that confidence and swagger and that attitude because at this point we have nothing to lose and we've got everything to prove."
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Nick Baptiste was in the Sabres' lineup for the first time since Nov. 14.
"I'm excited," the right winger said. "It's been a little while since I've been back up, but coach is giving me an opportunity to step in here, and I'm excited to take advantage of it."
The Sabres recalled Baptiste from Rochester on Friday, but he watched from the press box Saturday as Dallas dismantled the Sabres, 7-1. He stepped in for Benoit Pouliot, who was scratched for the third time in seven games.
Baptiste skated with center Evan Rodrigues and left wing Jordan Nolan.
Baptiste had no points in his first four appearances with the Sabres while averaging 8:02 per night. He skated just 5:38 on Nov. 14 in Pittsburgh before being sent back down to Rochester. Baptiste has seven goals and 17 points in 34 games with the Amerks and insists he learned from his ill-fated recall.
"It was good to get in some games," he said, "but now I feel like I've improved my game and I've made strides to try and keep myself up here as long as possible."