OTTAWA — Phil Housley was still agitated Thursday when asked about his team's utter no-show Wednesday night at KeyBank Center against the Calgary Flames. But then it was pointed out to him how the 5-1 defeat, coupled with Arizona's 2-1 victory over Vancouver later in the night dropped the Buffalo Sabres into last place in the NHL's overall standing.
The first-year coach calmly let out his disbelief at the situation his team is in.
"It's just hard. Nobody envisioned us being in this position," Housley said before Buffalo's game against the Ottawa Senators in Canadian Tire Centre. "I certainly didn't. I thought we had a good group. It goes back to early in the season. The one-goal games, we find a way to win some of those maybe we're talking differently but we didn't."
The 31st-place team rates an 18 percent to win the April draft lottery and grab the No. 1 pick in the draft June 23 in Dallas, a choice that's assumed to be Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. The Sabres' 4-3 shootout win Thursday over the Senators pushed them back ahead of Arizona with 55 points, although the Coyotes (53 points) now have two games in hand.
While Wednesday was a blowout, the Buffalo season has been rife with close shaves. The Sabres entered Thursday's game with 21 one-goal losses on the season, 10 in overtime and one in a shootout. Ottawa suffered its NHL-high 22nd loss in Thursday's shootout. Jack Eichel missed his 12th game with a high ankle sprain. Evander Kane now plays for San Jose. It's not a pretty picture.
"We're running into some injuries," Housley said. "Everybody is going to run into injuries so you're going to have to focus on the guys in the lineup. We're still trying to build something here and that's why these last 15 games mean something as we evaluate down the stretch."
The Calgary game was yet another stinker on home ice, where the Sabres are an NHL-worst 10-19-4. That doesn't sit well with Housley, especially since the Sabres had wins over Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto in the previous eight days.
"In this league you have to earn everything," Housley said. "We've had some success but you look at playing a desperate team like Calgary and I didn't think we respected that. You look at momentum or desperation, what would you rather have? Desperation is always going to win. We didn't match their desperation. Maybe it was an off night. I don't know. But we just weren't physically prepared to battle."
Housley laments how easy it can be for the Sabres to be ready against top opponents.
"Let's face it. You're playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins, the Tampa Bay Lightning. These are top elite teams not only in our division but in the league," he said. "In that respect you know you have to be ready because you can get embarrassed. I just felt we didn't respect where Calgary was: Three points out of a playoff spot, fighting for their playoff lives: That's the result you get.
"Just look at our starts. We get pucks in deep. We're physically on the 'D' (when the team is ready to play). I don't think anybody really wanted to have any physical contact last night. Last night is last night and we're going to move forward."
Casey Mittelstadt, the University of Minnesota freshman who was the Sabres' No. 1 draft choice last June, has been named one of three finalists for Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Mittelstadt is second on the Gophers with 30 points in 34 games (11-19-30). He's tied for sixth among NCAA freshmen in scoring. The conference will announce its award winners on Tuesday. Michigan defenseman Quinn Hughes, expected to be a top-5 pick in the June draft, is also a finalist as is Michigan State's Mitch Lewandowski.
Mittelstadt's team lost in the Big Ten Tournament to Penn State and is awaiting word on its NCAA Tournament fate on March 18. Once Minnesota's season is completed, Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill is expected to engage Mittelstadt and his advisors on a contract to leave school. The end of the Gophers' season could determine what kind of deal is in play, although it's expected the Sabres would want Mittelstadt to sign a deal to play in Rochester during the Calder Cup playoffs.
* The Senators were coming off a 2-2 road trip that saw them lose at Washington and Arizona – but post wins at Vegas and Dallas, the latter in overtime. It was the first road trip that saw them earn more than one win since they swept a Western Canada trip through Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton from Oct. 10-14 that boosted their record to 3-0-2.
The Senators lost just once in regulation in their first 11 games (5-1-5) and were 8-3-5 after sweeping their two-game set from Colorado in Stockholm, Sweden in early November. Since that overseas jaunt, however, the Ottawa season has collapsed. The Sens went 1-10-2 upon returning from Sweden and have not been in the playoff race since.
*Buffalo, Ottawa and Detroit entered Thursday tied for the NHL lead in one-goal losses with 21. The Sabres's win improved them to 10-10-11 in one-goal games while the Senators fell to 15-11-11.
*The Sabres also rate poorly when it comes to blowout losses. The 5-1 hammering they absorbed Wednesday against Calgary was their 16th of the season by three goals or more. Vancouver leads the NHL in blowout losses with 18 while Ottawa has 17.