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Sabres go back to work on power play Extra man gives team only slight advantage

The All-Star break gave almost all the Buffalo Sabres a chance to step away from the daily grind of the NHL and revitalize themselves.

Please note, however, the words "almost all."

Sabres associate coach Brian McCutcheon spent part of every day this week thinking about the power play. He had no choice. One of McCutcheon's duties is to lead the Sabres' man-advantage units, and they've descended to a status that can be described as woeful.

The Sabres face the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight in Nationwide Arena with a power play that's tied for 23rd in the league at 15.8 percent. In other words, only six teams are worse. The Sabres are 3 for 26 in the past six games, and they've won only two of them.

Numbers like that ensure that the power play stays on McCutcheon's mind.

"It is every day," he said after Thursday's practice in the Amherst Pepsi Center. "But I think it's something that we have confidence in, and the players have confidence, and we'll make some headway."

The power play is one of the few flaws on a team that leads the Eastern Conference exiting the All-Star break. The Sabres top the league in goals by a hefty margin -- 185 compared to 173 for second-place Nashville -- yet they sputter when the opposition is at its most vulnerable.

"We realize that if our power play was a little higher we'd probably be winning even more games," right wing Jason Pominville said. "We pretty much have the same units that were there last year, and our power play was right at the top of the league [finishing third at 21.2 percent]. There's no reason why we shouldn't be higher."

Mistakes are, in fact, one reason the Sabres rank near the bottom. It's not the same mistakes, either. If it were, McCutcheon's mind would be resting easier.

"We haven't finished in some cases," he said. "It seems from one game to the next either the entries haven't been good, or the in-zone hasn't been good. If we can put it all together . . ."

There's another reason the Sabres have to look no further than a mirror to spot a power-play problem. They were just too good at killing penalties last season. The Sabres finished second in penalty killing at 86.6 percent, and teams studied their game plans.

Then they thrust them right back at the Sabres.

"I think overall, penalty killing throughout the league has been more aggressive," McCutcheon said. "From one team to the next, they all seem to have really caught on. Maybe it's similar to what we were doing last year with our penalty killing."

Pominville has noticed. He's played much of the season at the point on the power play. Teams have effectively blocked the shooting lanes to force the point men to pass rather than shoot.

"They are coming at us a little harder than they did last year," said Pominville, who has two goals and two assists on the power play. "If you give guys time, usually they'll make the right play. Maybe teams are changing it around a little bit, but for the most part it's more about what we do. We've just want to keep it simple, put pucks on net, and we haven't been doing that lately."

The Sabres have been shuffling their units trying to find chemistry, but they have yet to find the right pieces to replace Tim Connolly and J.P. Dumont. They finished seventh and eighth, respectively, in power-play points for the Sabres last season. Paul Gaustad and Derek Roy rank seventh and eighth this year, and they are below the pace set by the injured or departed forwards. Pominville ranks 11th.

"There's certainly enough ability there," McCutcheon said, "and one of these combinations, we'll get it working."

The Sabres have 33 games left in the regular season to figure out how to make the opponents trudge dejectedly from the penalty box, something that would allow McCutcheon to put his thoughts elsewhere.

"Special teams is going to be huge, and it's going to be huge in the playoffs, as it is every year," co-captain Chris Drury said. "We've really got to get that straightened out and find a way to be better at it."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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