BUFFALO – Finally – or perhaps a more appropriate word would be “mercifully” – the end of the Sabres’ long, trying season is in sight.
Three games are left. A regulation loss tonight at home to the Carolina Hurricanes or later this week will cement 30th place, ending probably the oddest campaign in the franchise’s 45-year history.
Hours after the Sabres’ 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders on Saturday, the 29th-place Arizona Coyotes beat the San Jose Sharks 5-3, moving them four points up.
Finishing last will guarantee the Sabres the first or second pick in June, either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.
The Sabres could go 2-0-1 and still catch the Coyotes, who own the regulation-overtime wins tiebreaker, if they lose out.
That’s very unlikely, however. The Sabres play their final road game Friday against the Columbus Blue Jackets (they’ve won nine straight) before hosting the season finale Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team suddenly fighting for a playoff spot.
What could happen tonight? Will some Sabres fans inside the First Niagara Center cheer against their team again? They did March 26 when Arizona won 4-3 in overtime and again Friday when the Chicago Blackhawks stunned the Sabres with two goals in 47 seconds, winning 4-3.
No one, of course, expected the Sabres to win much this season. They’re a team built to lose. Still, these could be the final days of coach Ted Nolan’s second run with the Sabres.
Yes, general manager Tim Murray awarded Nolan a three-year extension at the end of last season. But Nolan isn’t truly Murray’s guy. Pat LaFontaine brought Nolan, Buffalo’s coach from 1995-97, back in November 2013, the first act of his four-month run as president of hockey operations.
When LaFontaine resigned March 1, 2014, Nolan lost his top supporter. Murray, at some point, will want to hire his own man.
Nolan said he’s had “no talk whatsoever” with Murray about his future.
“I’m not concerned with that,” he told reporters Saturday in Uniondale. “The only thing I’m concerned with is doing the best job I can on a daily basis. Everything else will fall where it may fall.”
Has Nolan asked Murray?
“No,” he said. “I signed a three-year deal last year. We’ll see what happens.”
On Saturday, Andrey Makarov became the eighth goalie to start a game for the Sabres since Nolan took over. The 21-year-old looked sharp in his NHL debut, making 33 saves, including 13 in the first period.
Makarov, an undrafted free agent, spent most of last season in the ECHL before joining Rochester. The Russian recently assumed the No. 1 job in with the Americans.
“Steady improvement,” Nolan said about Makarov’s development. “When he started getting a lot of games, he started playing a lot better. As a No. 1, a steady increase of playing time, his angling got better, his positioning got better. That’s what the American Hockey League’s all about, as far as development of the young guys.”
Makarov had a shutout in his last AHL start March 28. The Sabres recalled him late last season and briefly earlier this year, although he only dressed as a backup.
Meanwhile, Sabres goalie Matt Hackett is still feeling sore and sitting out. Hackett, who tore up his knee April 12, has played five games this season. The 25-year-old must play eight times (30 minutes counts as an appearance), or he will become an unrestricted free agent.
Larsson lost a draw to Jonathan Toews before the Chicago captain broke away from him in front and scored. Ristolainen couldn’t chip the puck out of his own zone seconds prior to Toews’ winning goal.
“Some games, that old cliché, you learn a lot by losing,” Nolan said. “I think (Friday) was a pivotal game for a couple of guys, in particular, Larsson. A big faceoff at the end, how Toews kind of beat him to the front of the net and got better positioning on him. That’s the difference right there. That’s why you win a couple of Stanley Cups, in position like that. That’s why you’re one of the elite athletes.”
Nolan said Saturday defenseman Mike Weber (soreness) could be finished for the season.