The game to prove who is football’s best is over. The game to show who is hockey’s worst is ready to face off.
The 30th-place Sabres host the 29th-place Edmonton Oilers tonight in First Niagara Center. While it hardly carries the same significance as the Super Bowl – OK, it’s not even in the same stratosphere as the Super Bowl – it does have meaning.
Buffalo and Edmonton are the runaway leaders to finish last in the NHL. Whoever earns the “honor” gets the best shot at winning the draft lottery and selecting first in June.
Gentlemen, start your draft boards!
It’s back to the drawing board for the Sabres. In a season full of embarrassing moments, their last game is near the top of the list, at least as far as on-ice indignities go. Colorado humiliated Buffalo, 7-1, to drop the Sabres to 15-31-8.
The Sabres are just 2-5-3 in the last 10 games.
“You look where we are,” coach Ted Nolan said. “You’re not going to play a consistent game all the time if you’re in bottom place. That’s why we’re in bottom place.”
Nolan was as angry after the game as he’s been during his tenure. He sat in the corner of the dressing room as players tried to explain themselves, then looked to end his own chat with a brief stutter step and upraised eyebrow that showed he didn’t want to talk anymore.
“Guys just don’t get it,” Nolan said. “Some guys are continuously making the same mistakes, and we continuously tell them. What more can you do? So we’ve just got to go back to the drawing board and go back at it.”
The coach was back to his philosophical ways at Sunday’s practice.
“The one thing I learned a long time ago is you can do too much about yesterday,” Nolan said in First Niagara Center. “It’s gone, but the one thing you can do is learn from it.”
Forwards Drew Stafford and Linus Omark are scheduled to return to the lineup. Stafford has missed four games with an injury, and the Sabres will need to make a roster move to clear a spot for him. Stafford had three goals and five points in four games before getting hurt Jan. 25 against Columbus.
The Sabres acquired Omark from Edmonton for a conditional sixth-round draft pick in December. He hasn’t found a home, putting up two assists in 11 games. Nolan scratched the winger in six of the last eight games, including the past three.
“So far it hasn’t worked out too well, but maybe this time it will,” Nolan said. “We want to see what everybody thought he was capable of doing when they drafted him and he came in this league. He’s a highly skilled player, but as we know skill can only get you so far.
“We want to see him play with a little more grit combined with that skill set.”
Jhonas Enroth is scheduled to start in goal for the Sabres. While fans might desire a loss to improve the draft stock, Enroth needs a victory.
The netminder is 1-10-5 and hasn’t won since Oct. 25 in Florida. Following a 2-1 shootout loss to Florida on Jan. 9, Enroth said, “It’s tough to win with this team.” He’s proved it.
Enroth has allowed 13 goals in three starts since the comment, going 0-2-1 with a 4.33 goals-against average and .870 save percentage.
“Last game, a couple got by him real quick and how he responded was a really good sign,” Nolan said of a 5-4 overtime loss to Washington that featured 30 saves. “You see a young goaltender trying to get himself really established in this league. Obviously, he wants to be a No. 1 down the road.”
Enroth needs to show he can lead a team because the Sabres’ crease situation could get complicated. Factoring in the Olympic roster freeze and the March 5 trade deadline, the Sabres have just 14 working days left to deal Ryan Miller. If Buffalo’s new management doesn’t believe in Enroth, it could acquire another goaltender.
Edmonton, meanwhile, suffered a 4-0 setback Saturday in Boston. It ended a three-game winning streak that followed a six-game winless streak (0-5-1). The Oilers are 18-33-6. They have 42 points compared to the Sabres’ 38, but they’ve also played three more games. Edmonton has 25 games remaining, while Buffalo has 28.
There’s still time to see who gets to brag, “We’re No. 29!” but today’s game will have an impact.
“I expect Buffalo to be coming out hard after losing their game the way they did to Colorado,” Edmonton coach Dallas Eakins said. “We’re in no position to take anybody lightly where we’re at in the standings.”