BUFFALO – These final weeks of another forgettable Sabres season are about playing for pride and experimenting. So even when things go well, coach Phil Housley might try something new.
For example, over the last two games, the line of Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste and Evan Rodrigues showcased its chemistry and speed. But tonight against the Arizona Coyotes, Bailey will skate at left wing beside top center Jack Eichel and Kyle Okposo.
“Bailey, Rodrigues and Baptiste were really good the last two games, especially when (winger Zemgus Girgensons) went out against Chicago,” Housley said this morning inside KeyBank Center. “But we’re just trying to find some balance, moving guys around to get some more scoring.”
So Bailey, who has played with Eichel before, will get another crack on the top line. Bailey understands he must utilize his speed if he wants to stick around. Tonight will be his 52nd NHL appearance.
“Some of the things I’ve been doing the last couple games I just need to continue to do,” Bailey said. “Jack’s 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 it’s on the forecheck or getting over D and causing turnovers, that’s just what I’m going to do.”
Housley said he wants a speedy presence beside Eichel to create a “give-and-go game.”
“That’s one of the things we’re working on with Justin, is just making those short plays, giving it and taking off and using his speed to create separation,” Housley said.
Sabres goalie Chad Johnson will start tonight’s “Game of the Weak” tilt featuring the NHL’s two worst teams.
Johnson is 5-2-0 with a 1.95 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage in seven career games against the Coyotes. He played four contests with Arizona in 2012-13. He has terrific numbers – 7-3-0, 2.47 and .923 – in 11 games since Jan. 22.
With goalie Robin Lehner still banged up, Linus Ullmark will be tonight’s backup. Lehner skated with his teammates this morning.
Here are the rest of tonight’s lines from left to right:
Scott Wilson, Ryan O’Reilly and Sam Reinhart
Jordan Nolan, Rodrigues and Baptiste
Benoit Pouliot, Johan Larsson and Jason Pominville
While the Sabres and Coyotes are the NHL’s bottom-feeders, both teams started performing much better at the same time. The Sabres are 9-8-2 in their last 19 games. The Coyotes, meanwhile, are 12-5-2 in their last 19 contests.
“We’re playing a brand of hockey that we envisioned early on,” Housley said. “Certainly, there’s a lot of areas of improvement that we’ve got to continue to improve on, and that’s getting to the net and getting to the dirty area, our zone-one chances – we’d like to see that increase – and our shot mentality.
“But we’re going to continue to hammer that message. For right now, I think for all the lineup changes and the guys who have been banged up and been out, the guys have done a good job of really making that commitment.”
Housley said Girgensons (undisclosed) skated on his own this morning. He said Girgensons and Lehner are day-to-day.