VANCOUVER — The first two games of the Buffalo Sabres’ road trip were against Calgary and Edmonton, two teams not close to the playoff race. The dynamic will be quite a bit different tonight in Rogers Arena.
The Vancouver Canucks are in true desperation mode in their first year under coach John Tortorella after entering the season with Stanley Cup aspirations. They have just 10 games left and entered play Saturday five points behind Phoenix for the final Western Conference playoff slot, pending the Coyotes’ game late Saturday against Boston.
The Canucks have made the playoffs in 10 of the last 12 seasons, getting to Game Seven of the Cup final in 2011 before losing to Boston. They looked golden this year after going 10-1-2 in December, but are just 9-19-3 since the new year as the heat has squarely landed on Tortorella and General Manager Mike Gillis.
The Canucks, of course, fell into a deep slump following Tortorella’s six-game, 15-day suspension for trying to get to Calgary coach Bob Hartley in the dressing room hallway at the Saddledome after the teams opened their Jan. 18 game with a line brawl.
Vancouver has alternated a loss and win for eight straight games, no way to make up any ground. With 10 left, they probably need to get 16-18 of the remaining 20 points to have a chance.
“Every game. One at a time. Buffalo is our next one,” was Tortorella’s word-thrifty analysis here Saturday. “Just trying to take each day at a time.”
Tonight’s game will feature a pregame ceremony to honor Canucks captain Henrik Sedin for playing his 1,000th game during the team’s last road trip. His twin brother, Daniel, returns to the lineup after missing nine games with a hamstring injury.
“Lately we’ve been working extremely hard,” Daniel Sedin said. “I keep thinking we’re going to get our share of wins. That’s all we can focus on. Win our games and see what happens.”
Daniel Sedin said he’s looking forward to his brother’s ceremony.
“It’s good for him. We all know he’s been healthy throughout his career,” Daniel Sedin said. “It’s going to be nice and hopefully that will get us up for the game even more.”
Canucks forward and U.S. Olympian Ryan Kesler (sprained knee) said he was feeling better and could return. He has been out since being injured March 12 in Winnipeg. Starter Eddie Lack will be in goal tonight.
Tonight’s game will be the second back in Vancouver for Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and center Cody Hodgson. Both played in Buffalo’s last appearance here, a 5-3 win on March 3, 2012.
Ehrhoff said the Game Seven loss to Boston still haunts him. It seems to have haunted the franchise as well. The Canucks have been first-round losers the last two years, winning just one game.
“Pretty heartbreaking to look back at that. It will hang over me until I get a chance to win the Cup,” Ehrhoff said. “Until that happens, it’s still going to be a heartbreaking thing to look back at. It’s the toughest way you can lose. Game Seven of the finals. It’s something you definitely carry with you.”
Buffalo’s 2012 victory here was notable for the fact it scored three goals in the first 5½ minutes to knock Roberto Luongo from the game.
Ville Leino scored twice in the first 3:44 but won’t get a chance to duplicate that outburst tonight. Leino, still without a goal while playing 50 of the Sabres’ 70 games, will be a healthy scratch for the second straight game. Leino sat out Thursday’s win in Edmonton.
One line shift Nolan made Saturday for tonight will see Matt Ellis joining Matt D’Agostini and Brian Flynn on the third line, with rookie Nicolas Deslauriers going to the fourth line with Zenon Konopka and John Scott.
Deslauriers has no points and a minus-5 rating in eight games with the Sabres.
“You don’t want to give a young player too much too soon … he has 8 games in the National Hockey League,” Nolan said. “It’s all about development.”