BUFFALO – Deep down, Sabres coach Ted Nolan probably knows the scene inside the First Niagara Center could get ugly for tonight’s anticipated matchup with the Arizona Coyotes, a contest between the NHL’s two worst teams.
With a prized, potentially franchise-changing prospect – either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel – essentially guaranteed with a loss, fans could do the unthinkable – root against the 30th-place Sabres, who trail Arizona by five points with nine games left. There have been some odd cheers recently.
These are bizarre times, indeed, especially for Nolan, who’s trying to win games with his team’s rabid fan base rooting for him to fail.
“I can’t control what other people think and what other people do,” Nolan said Wednesday. “The only thing I know is what I feel. I’m not speaking for anyone else. I’m just speaking for myself. Who wants to finish last? I never went into anything my entire life wanting to finish last.
“You go into it with the right intentions. It’s the integrity of the game that’s in mind for me. So you just got to do what you have to do and feel what you want to feel. If somebody wants to finish last, good for them.”
The “vast majority” of fans, Nolan believes, don’t come to watch their team lose.
“I just don’t think it’s in the feelings of this city,” he said. “I never felt it. That’s why I don’t think it’s there.”
Nolan, of course, hasn’t said anything negative about the fans all season. That’s not his style.
“I’m positive everything will be normal,” he insisted Wednesday.
Clearly, tonight’s tilt is anything but normal. Games between two awful teams rarely warrant attention. But Nolan, like a lot of coaches, has tunnel vision.
“He’s probably blocking it out like everybody else does,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “Every coach blocks it out. You got so much going on in your day-to-day (work).”
Still, some players know tonight’s atmosphere could be interesting. Not everyone can block it out.
“Oh yeah, it’s impossible not to think about,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “There’s been hype about it. It’s not hype from anyone that’s positive. It is what it is. You can’t really control what the fans are going to do.”
Doan thinks fans “have to right to do whatever they want to do.”
“I’m sure it’s not going to be near as bad as anyone thinks it is, and it’s going to be one of those things that as a player you’re not going to really notice,” he said.
Losing has taken its toll on Doan, a respected 19-year veteran. The Coyotes had dropped eight straight games and 18 of 19 before winning 5-4 in overtime Tuesday in Detroit. They had five goals in their previous five games.
Like the Sabres, they’re terrible. They plummeted to 29th after selling off assets prior to the trade deadline.
“By no means am I enjoying the losing at all,” Doan said. “It’s awful, it’s disgusting. I hate it. At the same time, you love the fact you get to play in the NHL and you love the game of hockey and you want to keep playing.”
That’s why both teams haven’t quit on the season.
“You don’t accept losing,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. “You’re not content with game in and game out, coming up short, no matter how close it is or what you’re doing, you got to find ways to get wins. That’s what this league is about. That’s our main focus, game in and game out, is trying to get a win. It’s not good enough to be close.”
Doan added: “Nobody wants to be in the position our two teams are in. Not one player. You’re embarrassed. You have to be. No one ever wants to be considered the worst. Obviously, both teams are being considered the two worst teams in the league. That’s not a good feeling.”
The man with his fingerprints all over both teams will be in the building tonight, according to the Buffalo News. Former Sabres general manager Darcy Regier, the godfather of tanking, is now Arizona’s senior vice president and assistant GM.
He brought his blueprint to the desert.
Regier hasn’t been seen in these parts since the Sabres fired him Nov. 13, 2013. He started the Sabres’ deep rebuild two years ago, trading captain Jason Pominville and later warning some “suffering” lied ahead. Within months, the Sabres had become a laughingstock filled with castoffs and youngsters in over their heads.
They strategically timed this rebuild to reap the benefits of a deep draft in June. Now, 16 months after he left town, Regier’s plan is about to come to fruition.
The Sabres can still catch the Coyotes. The teams play again Monday in Arizona. But a seven-point deficit would likely be too much for them to overcome.
“You want to finish as high as you can,” Gionta said. “In a season like this, you got to find little things to kind of set your sights on, and that’s definitely one of them.”