Coyotes all but end tanking debate in Buffalo

Buffalo’s radio team called it embarrassing. Sabres coach Ted Nolan admitted it was hard to hear. Sabres players couldn’t even find the words to describe hearing their fans cheer when Coyotes forward Sam Gagner scored the game-winning goal to defeat the Sabres, 4-3 in overtime on Thursday at First Niagara Center.

"You have to be a little bit disappointed as a player," Nolan told reporters. "They come here, perform and work."

Such is the state of things at the bottom of the NHL standings, where last place earns a team the guarantee of drafting one of two presumed franchise centers: Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

Following Thursday’s result, it’s probably safe to assume the Coyotes are out of that conversation and Buffalo has secured a 20 percent chance of landing McDavid and an 80 percent chance of landing Eichel.

Buffalo leads Arizona by six points in the race for 30th place in the standings, but the lead is really seven points when you account for the first tiebreaker: regulation or overtime wins (ROW). The Coyotes lead that race by six wins; an insurmountable gap with only eight games left on the Sabres’ schedule.

It’s impossible to say how Coyotes fans will react to the teams’ second meeting on Monday at Gila River Arena. Some will support their team no matter the circumstance. Some may already have come to terms with reality. Some may vent their frustration, taking the irrational stance that Arizona should have lost this game and Tuesday’s in Detroit on purpose to add what many believe are franchise altering players.

Remember what coach Dave Tippett said on Wednesday?

"Coaches and players don’t play for draft picks. I think players are just focused on playing well and coaches are worried about coaching well."

That same message was emanating from the Coyotes locker room on Thursday — and it’s been the same all year.

Coyotes 4, Sabres 3

"If you’ve played a competitive sport, everybody wants to win every single night," captain Shane Doan told FOX Sports Arizona’s Todd Walsh. "You’re playing in the NHL. You’d better not embarrass that."

The Coyotes did not on Thursday. They won consecutive games for the first time since Feb. 1 and Feb. 3, and they scored at least four goals in consecutive games for the first time all season.

Maybe you think it was foolish to do so with nothing more than pride on the line. Maybe you think it’s foolish to worry about character when a franchise-altering player hangs in the balance. Maybe the Coyotes did fritter away a big opportunity.

But nobody knows what will happen this June. Nobody knows what will happen next season. And for the guys who wear the uniforms, winning today always takes precedence over what comes tomorrow. If you don’t understand that thinking, you’ll never fully understand professional athletes and professional coaches.

"It’s been a long time since we’ve seen this many smiles around here," said forward David Moss, who scored his third goal in his last two games. "It’s a good feeling."

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