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No shots, no chance for goals for Girgensons

It's one thing not to score. The Buffalo Sabres have plenty of guys in that predicament at this point. It's another thing entirely to not even get chances to score.

That's where winger Zemgus Girgensons currently stands. Not a good place to be.

The 22-year-old has one goal all season, and that was six weeks and 18 games ago. He went four games in a row without a single shot on goal until finally getting one in Friday's 3-1 loss in Washington, a game that saw coach Dan Bylsma drop him to the fourth line and use him for a season low 9 minutes, 7 seconds.

"I have to simplify things. I have to work harder to get to the net," Girgensons said after practice Sunday in HarborCenter. "As a whole team, we have to get more bodies there in front because that's where we should be getting our goals from. Get in the goalie's eyes, and you get dirty ones."

Girgensons simply hasn't been able to do that in his fourth NHL season, which is looking much like his third. Girgensons had seven goals in 71 games last year, with just two in his final 30 games. Frankly, he hasn't been the same player since Ted Nolan was fired nearly 20 months ago.

Nolan may have amused reporters by never being able to say Girgensons' first name right -- routinely calling him "Zegmus" -- but he certainly relied on him in every situation, both with the Sabres and the Latvian Olympic team. In the 2014-15 season, Girgensons averaged 19:04 per game -- just two seconds off Tyler Ennis' team-high figure among forwards and three seconds less than Jack Eichel's average last season.

Girgensons and Ennis thrived under Nolan and have been lost under Bylsma. Girgensons' ice time dropped to 15:02 last season and is at just 12:36 this year. Nolan essentially said go out and play. Bylsma preaches structure and assignments, and Girgensons has been unable to adapt.

"The answer for Zemgus is not to go out and freewheel, not to go search for it on every corner and try to produce and create all over the ice every time he gets a chance to touch the puck or get near the puck," Bylsma said. "He's got to have an understanding of where he needs to be at for a team game and at the same time where he needs to be at to get and produce offensive chances and goals for us. That's really the quandary for his game right now, is finding that happy medium and balance in his game."

"Every coach is different and I understand that," Girgensons said. "You have to adjust to it and learn from it. I don't really prefer one style. You just have to learn and keep working to play their system."

Girgensons was Buffalo's second first-round pick in 2012 and the hopes that he can be a reliable two-way forward seem to be diminishing. He's played 223 career games, scoring only 31 goals while posting a minus-27 rating.

Girgensons had 22 shots on goal in the first eight games this month, but failed to score on any of them. Then the opportunities vanished. No shots in four straight home games, against Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Calgary and Detroit. Nothing in Washington either until Philipp Grubauer stopped his slapshot with just under four minutes left in the second period.

"He got a scoring chance against Washington and that's the area we've got to get Zemgus to understand is where he needs to go to score," Bylsma said. "He should be a guy that should be peeled off the goalie every time he's on the ice. He should be getting to that hard area to score a goal. It's seomthing we know he can do and it's something he's got to do to have success in his game."

"Net-front has become such a big deal in the whole league," Girgensons said. "If you have a good net presence, it's always hard on the goalies. That's what I have to focus on. We have to get someone in front there and get the pucks there."

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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