Rookie Keller sets up 2 in Coyotes' 4-1 win over Sabres
By JOHN WAWROW, AP Hockey Writer
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Clayton Keller and the Arizona Coyotes’ youth were too much in providing the Sabres a sobering reminder of why Buffalo belongs at the bottom of the NHL standings.
Keller set up two goals to set the franchise record for points in a season by a rookie, and fellow rookie Dylan Strome scored in a 4-1 victory Wednesday night.
Though the two teams began the day separated by one point at the bottom of the league standings, the Coyotes improved to 13-5-2 in their past 20 by overwhelming Buffalo.
“It’s actually awesome,” goalie Antti Raanta said, referring to Arizona’s late-season run.
It’s even better when taking into account how the youngsters are contributing.
“We want that those guys are taking this team and showing the way,” said Raanta, who stopped 29 shots.
Referring to Keller, Raanta added: “I think he’s been one of the best forwards in this stretch. And I think it’s going to be just awesome to see how good he’s going to be in the future because he’s already so good.”
The Coyotes’ 2016 first-round pick extended his points streak to six games, in which he has two goals and five assists. He also upped his points total to 55, one more than Peter Mueller had in setting the rookie team record in 2007-08. And Keller has 35 assists, one more than teammate Max Domi had in his rookie season two years ago.
Strome, the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft, scored a day after being called up from the minors. Derek Stepan had a goal and assist, Richard Panik also scored, and Domi sealed it with an empty-netter.
Frustration set in on the Sabres, who remain last in the standings with 58 points — one behind Vancouver.
“You’d think you’d come out gangbusters to start this game,” Housley said. “It was a very meaningful game in respect that you’re in last place in the league. That’s hard to swallow. It’s just unacceptable.”
Jordan Nolan scored the lone goal in briefly tying the game at 1 with 8:18 left in the first period. Chad Johnson allowed two goals on 15 shots before leaving the game 6:04 into the second period. He continued playing after being shaken up three minutes into the first period, when Brendon Perlini’s slap shot from the left circle struck Johnson in the mask and then went off his left shoulder.
Rookie Linus Ullmark took over and allowed one goal on 13 shots.
Stepan scored the go-ahead goal with 2:16 left in the first period, when his shot from the slot dribbled in after deflecting off Buffalo forward Scott Wilson’s stick.
Panik sealed the win by scoring 6:32 into the third. Keller’s shot from the left circle was blocked and dribbled into the crease, where Panik slipped it under a spread-eagled Ullmark.
Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet deflected attention away from his own personal loss. The first-year coach rejoined the Coyotes earlier in the day after spending the past few days in Toronto to attend mother Norma’s funeral. She died last week at the age of 93 due to complications from brain cancer.
“Yeah, I’m just a routine guy,” Tocchet said. “I like to get back in routine. That’s how my mom would’ve wanted me to get back into these things.”
The trajectory of the two franchises has hardly changed in the three years since both sat at the bottom of standings before a game in Buffalo.
The only difference then was, the last-place team was assured of picking no worse than second in a draft that featured two so-called generational prospects in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. Some Sabres’ fans were so in favor of their team finishing last, Buffalo was booed when captain Brian Gionta tied it at 3 with 3:37 remaining. And some cheered when Sam Gagner scored 56 seconds into overtime of Arizona’s 4-3 win.
Coyotes forward Brad Richardson didn’t sign with Arizona until the following summer, but was aware of how Sabres fans responded.
“I think that’s pretty sad, to be honest,” Richardson told The Associated Press earlier in the day.
The Sabres finished last, but lost the draft lottery to Edmonton, which selected McDavid with the first pick.
On Wednesday, the Sabres were booed when they were unable to score during the final three minutes with their goalie pulled.
“We’ve got to find a way to get smart or something,” Sabres forward Ryan O’Reilly said. “It’s disappointing.”
NOTES: Eichel played his 200th career game. … Arizona converted two of three power-play chances after going 2-for-23 in its previous nine games. … Coyotes D Jason Demers did not play and will miss the remainder of the season with an upper-body injury.
Coyotes: Continue six-game road swing at Carolina on Thursday night.
Sabres: Close six-game homestand against Montreal on Friday night.
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