It's not Tankathon II but it's close as the Sabres and Arizona Coyotes meet Wednesday night in KeyBank Center. The 7 p.m. faceoff pits the league's 31st-place team (the Sabres at 58 points) against No. 29 (Arizona at 59). But both clubs have been appreciably better in the last 20 games while Vancouver is collapsing with seven straight losses and a 4-15-3 mark in its last 22.
The Canucks also have 59 points and seem to be a good bet to finish last and get the best draft lottery odds. Buffalo, meanwhile, is 9-8-3 in its last 20 games while Arizona is 12-5-2 in its last 19.
Here are Five Things to Know about tonight's game:
1. New wings for Eichel
Jack Eichel will play in his 200th NHL game tonight and will start with new linemates as he centers Kyle Okposo and Justin Bailey. Okposo played easily his best hockey of the season in late January and early February while on Eichel's line and this represents a big opportunity for Bailey, who scored the Sabres' lone goal March 10 vs. Vegas and got nearly 12 1/2 minutes of ice time Monday against Nashville.
"It's an opportunity I'm obviously looking forward to and I think the things I've been doing the last couple games I just need to continue to do," said Bailey, who has three goals in 11 games this season. "Jack is a player who's one of the best in this game with having the puck on his stick. The more I can get him the puck, whether on the forecheck or getting over 'D' and causing turnovers, that's what I'm going to do."
"We're just trying to find some balance moving guys around to get some more scoring," Housley said. "We're going to put guys in different positions like we said all along, just giving them an opportunity to see how they react and evaluate guys down the stretch here. This is an opportunity for Justin to use his speed to try to create some chemistry."
#Sabres in the AM: Wilson-ROR-Reinhart, Bailey-Eichel-Okposo (that's interesting), Nolan-ERod-Baptiste, Pouliot-Larsson-Pominville
D: Scandella-Ristolainen, Beaulieu-Nelson, Guhle-Falk. All three goalies are out here but Lehner is watching line drills.
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) March 21, 2018
2. In the nets
Chad Johnson (8-11-3, 3.27/.897) will get the call for the Sabres while Antti Raanta (16-16-6, 2.41/.925) goes for Arizona. Johnson is 4-1 in his last five starts and 6-2 in his last eight while Raanta is 8-2-1 in his last 11.
Buffalo's Robin Lehner will miss his third straight game today due to bumps and bruises but practiced with the team fully this morning and is improving.
3. Group howls
The Coyotes, under first-year coach Rick Tocchet, have had a season similar to the Sabres. They had a brutal start and have finally found their way recently. The Sabres won just 14 of their first 53 games, going 14-29-10, while Arizona only just 12 of the first 53 (12-32-9).
Rookie Clayton Keller leads Arizona in goals (20) and points (53) although he has slowed down considerably since he had 11 goals in the season's first 15 games. Veteran Derek Stepan is next in scoring at 47 points (12-35) while defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson follows at 38 (13-25) – but also has the league's worst rating at minus-32. Ekman-Larsson did not skate this morning and there is some question about his availability tonight. The Coyotes are simply saying their lineup is a game-time decision.
"When you have a lot of young guys in your lineup, the compete level night after night has to be there because there's no easy game," Coyotes assistant coach John MacLean said today. "We're kind of figuring that out, buying into what's happening and how we want to play. The credit goes to them. They could easily have folded and they didn't."
(Tocchet is returning from Toronto, where he attended the funeral of his 93-year-old mother. He's scheduled to be behind the bench tonight).
4. Strome gets another chance
Forward Dylan Strome, taken right after Eichel with the No. 3 pick in 2015, has earned his third call-up of the season and will play for the Coyotes tonight for the first time since Dec. 16. Strome has one goal and one point in 11 NHL games this year but was an AHL all-star for Tucson (22-28-50 in 47 games, second in the league in scoring).
Strome had 129 points in 2014-15 at Erie of the OHL, when one of his teammates was Connor McDavid. He had 111 points for the Otters in 2015-16 and added 75 points in 35 games for them last year. At 21, the Coyotes simply hope Strome is a late bloomer but he has fallen way behind McDavid and Eichel.
McDavid's career: 200 GP, 80-158-238
Eichel's career: 199 GP, 70-97-167
Strome's career: 18 GP, 1-1-2
5. By the numbers
Something gives tonight: The Sabres have the NHL's worst home record (11-21-5) while the Coyotes have the second-worst road mark (9-17-7). ... The Sabres are last in the NHL in goals (171) while Arizona is 30th (173). ... The Sabres are 12-2-1 in their last 15 against the Coyotes, including a 5-4 win Nov. 2 in Glendale, Ariz. ... The Coyotes are fourth in the NHL on the road on the power play (22 percent) and fifth on the road in penalty killing (83 percent). They are just 27th and 16th, respectively, at home in those two areas. ... This is the Sabres' final game of the year against the Pacific Division and they are 6-6-3.