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Sabres notebook: Trip to meet Blues starts rugged week

The Buffalo Sabres are winless in their last four games and have won just once in their last six. Their injury plagued lineup has dropped to last in the NHL in scoring. Probably the last thing they need is a schedule like this week.

The Sabres play three straight games against returning conference finalists, starting Tuesday night in St. Louis against the Blues. They return home to host Tampa Bay on Thursday night and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh on Saturday night.

"It's a challenge, that's for sure," coach Dan Bylsma said after practice Monday in HarborCenter. "We're looking at three very good teams if you go back to last year. It's going to be a big challenge. You never like to look past on your schedule to game two and game three this week but we've got three really good teams."

St. Louis lost to San Jose in Game Six of the Western Conference finals last season, falling two wins shy of its first trip to the Stanley Cup final since 1970. The Blues are coming off an ugly 8-4 loss Saturday in Columbus, so you would think they'd be ornery come Tuesday.

The Blues have beaten the Sabres eight straight times dating to 2009 and there's another sobering note to add to the Sabres' watch list: Coach Ken Hitchcock said Monday's practice was the best one his team has had in a long time.

"It was really good," Hitchcock told St. Louis reporters after his team's workout in suburban Hazelwood, Mo. "I knew it was going to be good when we were getting on the plane in Columbus. I knew we were going to make some headway. There's building times and this is it. We've got a real opportunity. We're in the quagmire with everybody else, and it is an opportunity that starting today the players really took advantage of.

"I told the coaches that it's the best one I've had here in almost two years. The focus, the energy, the communication, disposition, compete level ... it was really good."

Like the Sabres, the Blues have had a hectic schedule of late and are 2-2-1 in a span of eight days through Saturday. They are 7-6-3 overall and currently holding the first wild card position in the Western Conference. But they are dramatically better at home (5-1-2) than on the road (2-5-1) and Tuesday's game starts a stretch where eight of their next 10 games will be in Scottrade Center.

Defense and goaltending has been a problem in November for St. Louis, which is 2-4-1 in the month and has been outscored, 26-15, in the seven games. Three of the four regulation losses have been by at least four goals.

Dynamic winger Vladimir Tarasenko leads the Blues in goals (6), assists (11) and points (17). He is tied for fifth in the league in scoring. Hitchcock said starter Jake Allen (5-3-3, 2.62, .896) will be in goal Tuesday.

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With Vancouver's five-goal output Sunday night in an overtime win over Dallas, the Canucks passed the Sabres in the NHL's goal scoring total and left Buffalo and Colorado tied for the bottom spot at 1.93 goals per game. The Sabres have just 29 goals in 15 games, with Matt Moulson holding the team lead at six.

Moulson finished last season with just eight goals in 81 games but the team's struggles leave no cause for celebration.

Said Moulson: "It's tough to win games no matter how well your goalies are playing if you're scoring one goal a game, two goals a game."

"Through 15 games, the number is low for sure," Bylsma said of the goal total for his 5-6-4 team. "Maybe the biggest surprise is we haven't got to the power play as much as we need to to get opportunities to score there. We should be playing the way where teams have to take penalties against us."

In the last five games, the problem has become acute as Buffalo has yielded 26 power-play chances while getting only nine of its own. The Sabres are 11th in the league in power play percentage at 20.4 but they're just tied for 23rd in chances with 44.

On the penalty kill, the Sabres are 10th at 84.2 percent and 22nd in times short (57). The Sabres and Nashville are the only two teams to not allow a power play goal at home, with Buffalo 17 for 17. On the road, the Sabres are 22nd at 77.5 percent.

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Former No. 1 overall draft pick Nail Yakupov is having about as much success in St. Louis as he did in Edmonton. Yakupov, who went bust after being the top choice in the 2012 draft, played just 7:27 in Columbus and did not see the ice in the third period. The Blues acquired him from the Oilers last month for a prospect and conditional draft pick. He has two goals and two assists in 13 games.

"'Yak' got out of sorts positionally, and we needed to grab it back," Hitchcock said. "That's the best way to describe it."

A healthy scratch recently for three straight games, Hitchcock said he had not made a decision if the winger will play against the Sabres.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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