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O’Reilly: Sabres adopted mindset of ‘being OK with losing’

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Ryan O'Reilly was unable to hide his dejection as he acknowledged that the Sabres’ latest last-place finish led him to question his love for hockey.

If that wasn’t enough, the high-priced center accused the Sabres of adopting a mindset of “being OK with losing.”

“It’s crept into all of our games. Yeah, it’s disappointing. It’s sad,” O’Reilly said Monday, two days after Buffalo closed one of its worst seasons in franchise history. “I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times, and just need to get back to it because it’s eating myself up, and eats the other guys up, too.”

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Losing is all O’Reilly knows in the three seasons since being acquired in a trade with Colorado, after which the Sabres signed him to a seven-year, $52.5 million contract extension.

Rather than being part of a rebuilding plan, which included Buffalo selecting Jack Eichel with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, O’Reilly and company find themselves back at square one. They became the NHL’s first team to finish 31st – following this year’s addition of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights – after back-to-back 30th-place finishes in 2013-14 and 2014-’15.

This year’s collapse is considerably worse given that Buffalo’s trajectory was supposed to be trending upward under the new regime of general manager Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley. They took over last spring after the Sabres underachieved in finishing 26th under GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma

“We have to evaluate everything, coaching staff, the players. What are they willing to change?” Housley said. “There comes a point in your career where you have to realize what’s important. Obviously, winning, what it takes to win, the commitment to win in this league. And that’s what we talk about change.”

Very little went right in a season Buffalo opened 1-5-2 and closed 2-9, extending the franchise’s longest playoff drought to a seventh straight year.

Buffalo matched a franchise low for home wins by going 11-25-5, including a 3-2 overtime loss to the Rangers in the Winter Classic at New York City. The Sabres finished last in the NHL with 199 goals scored, 91 goals at home and in being outscored by 81 goals.

Their best run was a three-game win streak, all on the road, while the Sabres went winless over four or more games seven times, including an 0-5-2 skid from Nov. 10-22.

The reality of how bad the Sabres were, set in at the midpoint of the season for defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.

“It was around Christmas and we were done, and we still had 40 games to play,” Ristolainen said. “Everyone wants to make the playoffs so bad, and we weren’t even close.”

LIKING EICH

Eichel led Buffalo with a career-best 25 goals and 64 points in 67 games, despite missing 15 games with a sprained right ankle. Much more is expected next season when Eichel’s eight-year, $80 million contract kicks in.

“Things will get better and it starts with me,” Eichel said. “Everybody needs to look at themselves and figure out what they’re doing. Obviously, whatever I’ve been doing hasn’t been working. What we’ve been doing as a team hasn’t been working.”

DOWN ON THE FARM

While the Sabres are done, their AHL Rochester Americans affiliate qualified for the playoffs for the first time in four years. The Americans feature several Sabres prospects being counted upon to play in Buffalo full-time next season including forward Alexander Nylander, defenseman Brendan Guhle and goalie Linus Ullmark.

FREE AGENTS

The Sabres have a decision to make in goal with starter Robin Lehner set to become a restricted free agent and backup Chad Johnson eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. The team’s other pending unrestricted free agents include forwards Benoit Pouliot and Jordan Nolan, and defenseman Josh Gorges.

Forward Sam Reinhart, who scored a career-best 25 goals, completed his three-year entry level contract and eligible to be a restricted free agent.

OFF TO THE WORLDS

Rookie first-round draft pick Casey Mittelstadt accepted Hockey USA’s invitation to compete at the world championships in Denmark next month. Mittelstadt signed with Buffalo last month after completing his freshman season at Minnesota. The center won a bronze medal representing the U.S. at the World Junior hockey championships in January.

INJURIES

Lehner visited a specialist Monday to assess a lower body injury that forced him to miss the final five games. D Zach Bogosian expects to be cleared to skate by June after having season-ending hip surgery in January.

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Sabres clinch top odds in 2018 NHL Draft Lottery

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Congratulations to the Buffalo Sabres! With Wednesday night’s 4-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators, Phil Housley’s gang has clinched the top odds for the 2018 NHL Draft Lottery, which will be held on April 28.

With two games remaining in their season, the Sabres are 31st in the league on 62 points and now have an 18.5 percent chance of earning the right to draft projected No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin, a defenseman from Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League. Via the NHL, the 2018 NHL Draft Lottery will consist of three drawings: the first Lottery Draw will determine the team selecting first overall, the second Lottery Draw will determine the team selecting second overall and the third Lottery Draw will determine the team selecting third overall.

The Sabres were guaranteed at least the second-best odds considering their record heading into the Ottawa game. This is the third time Buffalo had held the top odds for the lottery in five years and they’re hoping to finally come away with a win.

Here’s a look at just how rough the Sabres have had it this season:

  • Third-worst goals against average (3.29)
  • Worst goals per game average (2.35). Only NHL team under 200 goals scored (188)
  • Tied for 30th in shooting percentage (7.7 percent)
  • Worst in the NHL in regulation/overtime wins (24)
  • 31st in the NHL in even strength goals (114)
  • 34 losses when opposing team scores first

Dahlin’s addition would certainly help, but that roster needs major changes, which means a busy summer ahead for general manager Jason Botterill.

Here’s a look at the updated draft lottery standings:

1 – Sabres (18.5 percent), 62 points, 80 games, 24 ROW
2 – Senators (13.5), 67 points, 80 GP, 26 ROW
3 – Canadiens (11.5) 69 points, 80 GP, 26 ROW
4 – Coyotes (9.5), 69 points, 80 GP, 27 ROW
5 – Canucks (8.5), 70 points, 80 GP, 30 ROW
6 – Red Wings (7.5) 72 points, 80 GP, 25 ROW
7 – Oilers (6.5) 74 points, 80 GP, 30 ROW
8 – Islanders (6.0) 76 points, 80 GP, 30 ROW
9 – Blackhawks (5.0) 76 points, 80 GP, 32 ROW
10 – Rangers (3.5), 77 points, 80 GP, 31 ROW
11 – Hurricanes (3.0) 81 points, 80 GP, 32 ROW
12 – Flames (2.5) 82 points, 80 GP, 34 ROW (*Pick owned by NYI)
13 – Stars (2.0) 90 points, 80 GP, 37 ROW
14 – Panthers (1.5) 90 points, 79 GP, 38 ROW
15 – Blues (1.0) 92 points, 80 GP, 40 ROW

As Adam Gretz pointed out this afternoon, the previous two times Buffalo failed to win the lottery, they ended up with the No. 2 pick. Those selections were used on Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel after missing out on Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL Playoff Push: Ducks, Kings can clinch tonight

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Only three games on the NHL schedule Wednesday night but all of them have some level of importance, even if it is for very different reasons.

When it comes to the playoff races all of the big games are taking place in the Western Conference with the St. Louis Blues hosting the Chicago Blackhawks (you can watch that game on NBCSN) and the Anaheim Ducks hosting the Minnesota Wild.

Let’s see why it all matters.

First, the standings.

After winning six in a row (and eight out of nine games) the St. Louis Blues have dropped three games in a row and really need to pick up two points against the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night. They are getting a bit of a break in that game because not only have the Blackhawks won just five of their past 17 games, they will be without Jonathan Toews on Wednesday night and will be starting Jean-Francois Berube in net.

[NHL On NBCSN: Blues need to pick up valuable points against Blackhawks]

Of the Blues’ remaining three games two of them are against this Blackhawks team (Wednesday and Friday) and then they close the regular season at Colorado (the team directly ahead of them in the standings for the second Wild Card spot as of Wednesday afternoon) on Saturday. They also still have that game in hand on the Avalanche. So while they open the day on the outside looking in, they are still in control of a lot. The matchups are also pretty favorable in the sense that they are getting two games against a struggling team and a head-to-head against the team they are chasing. The Avalanche are also without Semyon Varlamov and Erik Johnson in their remaining two games (as well as most, if not all, of the playoffs if they make it) due to injury.

For that reason the Avalanche will almost certainly be keeping a close eye on the outcome of the Blues-Blackhawks game on Wednesday.

They will not be the only team.

The Los Angeles Kings will be watching closely as well.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

A Blues loss to the Blackhawks on Wednesday night would officially clinch a playoff berth for the Kings.

A St. Louis loss would also open the door for the Ducks to get in as well if they can also beat the Wild. Anaheim is one of the teams that have been hit hard by injuries over the past few days and will be without its top defenseman, Cam Fowler, and starting goalie, John Gibson.

The Wild are also without, Ryan Suter, their top defenseman due to an ankle injury.

If The Playoffs Started Today

Boston Bruins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Washington Capitals vs. New Jersey Devils
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Anaheim Ducks
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

Wednesday’s Key Games

St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks, 8 p.m. ET
Minnesota Wild vs. Anaheim Ducks, 10 p.m. ET

The Tank Watch!

Well, we said all three games on Wednesday are important, and that is kind of true. It is just that the third game is important because it could impact the NHL draft lottery. The two worst teams in the NHL — the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres — will be facing off in Buffalo and a Sabres loss would clinch the worst record in the league, guaranteeing them a top-five pick in the draft and the best odds to win the No. 1 overall pick and the right to select defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.

It would be the third time in five years the Sabres would finish with the worst record in the league. The previous two times they did not win the draft lottery, ending up with the No. 2 pick both times. They selected Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel, missing out on Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid.

Maybe this will be the year, Buffalo. Maybe this will be the year.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Karlsson’s killer clincher for Vegas; Lucic fights Glass

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Clinching

  • The Vegas Golden Knights probably couldn’t have clinched the Pacific Division in a more fitting way: on a dramatic, shorthanded goal by William Karlsson. Karlsson scored his 42nd goal of 2017-18 with incredible style, confounding Martin Jones with a ridiculous between-the-legs shot. See that goal in the highlight of the night section.
  • The Pittsburgh Penguins will be able to defend their repeat title (in other words, go for a “threepeat”) after clinching their 12th consecutive trip to the playoffs.
  • Nashville wasn’t able to clinch the Central Division, but the Winnipeg Jets will finish no worse than second after winning against Toronto. So, a franchise without a single playoff win will get at least one round of home-ice advantage.
  • Meanwhile, the Carolina Hurricanes have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. The Stars kept their slim odds alive.

Injury concerns

Ryan Suter, Viktor Arvidsson, Travis Dermott, Brandon Carlo, and Victor Antipin rank among players with injury worries. Find out more here and here.

Highlights of the Night

This Karlsson goal is just ridiculous.

Let’s watch it from another angle.

There were a lot of ugly moments for Nashville in its 7-4 loss to Buffalo, with Scott Hartnell hurting Victor Antipin. This was pretty, however:

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Players of the Night

  • Jack Eichel collected a ridiculous five assists in Buffalo’s win against Nashville, crossing the 100-assist barrier for his career. Sam Reinhart generated a hat trick for the Sabres, too.

  • Antti Raanta collected a 34-save shutout as the Coyotes shocked the Blues 6-0. Solid night for spoilers.
  • The Blue Jackets lost in overtime, but don’t blame their top guys. Seth Jones scored a goal and three assists while Artemi Panarin collected four helpers as Columbus generated a key standing point.

Heavyweight bout

It hasn’t been a great season for Milan Lucic, but hey, at least he handled heavyweight bruiser Tanner Glass in this brutal fight:

Scores

Bruins 5, Panthers 1
Red Wings 2, Senators 0
Canucks 5, Blue Jackets 4 (OT)
Jets 3, Maple Leafs 1
Devils 4, Islanders 3
Penguins 5, Canadiens 2
Rangers 2, Hurricanes 1
Sabres 7, Predators 4
Stars 4, Wild 1
Coyotes 6, Blues 0
Flames 3, Oilers 2
Golden Knights 3, Sharks 2

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Tanks for nothing: Some NHL teams can’t win for losing

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Jack Eichel has difficulty accepting the sorry state of the Buffalo Sabres, who haven’t had a sniff at the playoffs in the three years since his celebrated arrival.

”When I got drafted, if you would’ve said we’d be in this position, I probably would’ve told you to give your head a shake,” Eichel told The Associated Press.

Instead, it’s the 21-year-old shaking his head in disbelief over a franchise that’s finished no better than 14th in the Eastern Conference since 2012-13 and in jeopardy of finishing last in the overall standings for the third time in five years.

This isn’t what anyone – from since-fired GM Tim Murray to Sabres fans encouraging the team to tank – were anticipating during the 2014-15 season. That’s when Buffalo was in a race to the bottom for the right to draft one of the two touted, generational prospects: Eichel and Connor McDavid, who was selected first overall by Edmonton.

What’s worse for Eichel is seeing other teams jumping ahead of Buffalo in the rebuilding process.

”You look at Colorado and some of these teams, New Jersey, that make a quick turnaround and all of a sudden they’re in the playoff hunt,” he said.

If misery likes company, the Sabres aren’t the only ones stuck in a rut.

Whatever watershed moment the 2015 draft was supposed to represent by infusing game-changing talent to the NHL’s neediest teams, it has yet to make more than a ripple in the standings.

Eichel hasn’t made a dent in the Sabres’ fortunes despite averaging nearly a point a game. For all of McDavid’s offensive exploits and earning NHL MVP honors last season, the Oilers will miss the playoffs for the second time in his three years.

Instead, the 2015 draft serves as a cautionary example of how bottoming out doesn’t guarantee instant turnarounds.

With the exception of Toronto, three of the teams, including Arizona, with top-five selections in 2015 have already been eliminated from this year’s playoffs, and a fourth, Carolina, could join them soon.

So much for the tanking tenet held by several NHL executives, who thought the best way to build a champion was to start by losing big.

Pittsburgh did that in building its three most recent Stanley Cup champion teams with two No. 1 draft picks (Sidney Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury) and a No. 2 (Evgeni Malkin). Chicago’s three most recent Cup winners followed the Blackhawks selecting Jonathan Toews with the No. 3 pick in 2006 and Patrick Kane No. 1 the following year.

And yet, there are exceptions.

Detroit won four titles from 1997 to 2008 despite not drafting higher than No. 19 from 1992 to 2013.

Boston has had a top-10 pick just twice in 10 years.

Just look at the NHL expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who have clinched a playoff berth and are leading the Pacific Division with a team cobbled together from scratch.

”A lot of teams have a lot of good hockey players, but there’s not many Malkins and Crosbys in the NHL. No, we don’t have them,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. ”It’s all about being a team. And we’ve been a team since Day 1.”

This year, Nashville is leading the NHL with a roster featuring one top-five draft pick, forward Ryan Johansen, who was acquired in a trade with Columbus, and no other player selected in the top 10.

”You don’t always have to be real bad for a few years to win,” Predators veteran forward Mike Fisher told The AP.

Goalie Pekka Rinne credits Predators management for assembling the team through trades and identifying talent in the later rounds of the draft. The Predators feature six players Nashville selected in the fourth round or lower, including Rinne, an eighth-rounder in 2004.

”We’ve never had to rebuild,” Rinne said. ”And for a guy like myself being here for a long time, it’s nice to have that. You don’t have to waste any years.”

Having a wealth of high picks is no guarantee.

Florida has made the playoffs twice since 2001-02 despite having a top-10 pick 10 times over that span.

The Oilers have made the playoffs once since 2010 despite selecting first four times.

The New York Islanders will miss the playoffs for a sixth time since selecting John Tavares with the No. 1 pick in 2009.

After 2015, there are even fewer benefits to finishing last after the NHL altered its draft lottery formula. Now, the last-place team is assured of nothing more than the No. 4 pick, as opposed to No. 2.

Coyotes forward Brad Richardson questioned whether teams adopting a strategy to lose had lasting effects.

”I don’t want to say tanking, but when you do tank, I think it sets a precedent in your organization that it’s OK to lose, and you’re showing the young guys that losing’s acceptable,” Richardson told The AP.

HOLLAND’S FUTURE

Red Wings GM Ken Holland told The AP he has received no assurances from the team he’ll return for a 21st year, despite reports indicating he will be back.

MLive.com on Tuesday cited an unnamed person in reporting Holland will be back ”with or without a contract.” The Detroit Free Press quoted a person familiar with the situation saying ”he’s going to be back as the GM,” but reported it’s unclear how Holland’s contract will be structured.

Holland, in a text to The AP, declined to discuss whether he’d return without a contract, saying: ”I’ll talk when the final decision has been made.”

LEADERS (Through games Monday)

Points: McDavid, 99. Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 45. Game-winning goals: Sean Monahan (Calgary) and Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado), 11. Rookie points: Mathew Barzal (Islanders), 78. Goals-against average (minimum 40 games): Fleury (Vegas), 2.12.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Top spot in the overall standings could be on the line Sunday, when the Western Conference-leading Predators travel to play East-leading Tampa Bay.

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey