It’s not very often that the home team gets fewer cheers than the visiting players — but in Buffalo, Thursday night’s game may have just that.
The Buffalo Sabres and the Arizona Coyotes have a good bit in common.
Both teams have a highly-coveted winger on their roster — who can’t play for the rest of the season. The Arizona Coyotes have been without the services of Mikkel Boedker since his splenectomy back in January, while the Buffalo Sabres won’t see newly acquired Evander Kane don the navy jersey until next season as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
Both teams also boast some of the biggest up-and-coming names on their blue lines. While Coyotes alternate captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson leads the league in goals scored by defensemen and former first rounder John Moore grows accustomed to having a guaranteed spot in the lineup every night, the Sabres are patiently awaiting youngsters Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov to grow into top-pairing players.
Tyler Ennis is small but fast, and Tobias Rieder is one of the most explosive rookies to debut this season — and that’s not even talking about Buffalo center Zemgus Girgensons or the three World Junior Championship stars that are divided between the two teams’ prospect pools.
Despite all the exciting names each team has to offer, though, both franchises lay claim to an array of high draft picks — because any and all established veterans that didn’t have a place in each respective team’s future vision was dealt prior to the deadline. The only established players left for each franchise are captains Shane Doan and Brian Gionta, unless you count the slew of depth forwards kept around to help ease the transition to an NHL lineup for the youngsters.
As a result, both Arizona and Buffalo are teams deeply immersed in a rebuild — and with a small handful of generational talents available at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, few fans for either team would be all that brokenhearted if their team finished in last place.
Arizona boasts the stronger defense — they arrived in Buffalo for Thursday night’s game boasting an 80.3% penalty kill on the road, good for fifteenth in the league. In comparison, Buffalo offers a nearly identical 80.2% penalty kill at home (although their 68% penalty kill rate on the road is the worst in the league by a wide margin) but have allowed more goals against than nearly any other team in the league — they offer a GAA that’s only topped by Edmonton over the entire season, and they’re playing a backup goalie who hasn’t won an NHL game since March 20… 2014.
You read that correctly — it’s been over a year since Buffalo’s starter won an NHL game.
If there’s anything that Buffalo has over Arizona, though, it’s offense.
After Boedker was shut down for the season, the Coyotes lost top six center Martin Hanzal with season-ending surgery as well — and although Antoine Vermette wasn’t known as an offensive force by any stretch, he was the player on the Coyotes most likely to score on any given night. A number of prospects in the Arizona system look poised to spark the team’s scoring in coming seasons — Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Christian Dvorak, and even Ryan MacInnis could become twenty goal scorers, and that’s just looking at the players still in the major juniors — but the current team struggles to score more than one or two goals a night. They may have found their spark recently — the Coyotes pulled out a 5-4 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Monday — but Buffalo has been surprising some teams lately, too.
The Edmonton Oilers community coined the acronym E.L.P.H. after yet another losing season a few years back, and that’s what Thursday night’s game will be — Exciting Last Place Hockey.
The fans may cheer when Arizona scores — which, for a team that’s had a rough season, may inspire them to score even more. The team broadcast may pick up a number of hand-made ‘McDavid’ Sabres jerseys (the arena in Glendale, Arizona has certainly seen a handful of them so far), and the NHL insiders panels may spend most of their shows talking about the ‘tank-off’ that will be taking place — after all, the team that finishes last is guaranteed to at least get Jack Eichel in the event that they lose the draft lottery, and that’s not a bad consolation prize.
While the games in Toronto have been somewhat grim, though, this may be the most heavily-watched game between bottom-ranked teams yet this season — and the way both teams have played recently, it may turn out to be a pleasantly fun game to view.