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Sabres' short-handed unit is a killer for Buffalo

After another poor night for the Sabres’ penalty-kill unit, Jake McCabe thought back to a penalty he took early in the season.

“I was sitting in the box thinking, ‘It’s fine. We’re going to kill this,’” McCabe recalled Friday.

Nowadays the Sabres are probably thinking they won’t have to serve the full two minutes. That’s often the case.

Buffalo went just 1 for 3 on the penalty kill against Washington, a key factor in the 4-1 loss in KeyBank Center. The Sabres have allowed at least one power-play goal in nine of the past 12 games, killing 18 of 32 for a measly 56.3 percent.

“We have become a little shell-shocked the last few weeks,” coach Dan Bylsma said.

The Sabres knew special teams would be important during the third meeting with the Capitals, so they spent much of Thursday and Friday morning practicing it. At one point, Bylsma gathered all the penalty-killers at the blue line for an extended chat about what was expected.

“We stepped over the boards today to be aggressive, be a killing unit,” Bylsma said. “That was the best we’ve done in a long time in the first kill and a half.”

But with 13 seconds left in the second penalty, Evgeny Kuznetsov cruised through the right side of the zone and fed rookie Jakub Vrana at the top of the crease. Washington went up, 2-0.

After the Sabres had cut it to 2-1 in the third, Washington’s John Carlson delivered ona  power-play bomb from the top of the circles.

“It makes it 2 for 3 on the power play,” Bylsma said. “It turns out to be a big difference in the game.”

Only the paltry penalty-killers in Chicago are keeping the Sabres out of the NHL cellar. The Blackhawks are last at 71.4 percent, while the Sabres are 29th at 74.2 percent.

“We’ve paid more attention to it and put some emphasis on trying to improve in that area,” Sabres defenseman Cody Franson said. “We’ve got to find a way to get it done. We’re going up against some good power plays, but we have to find a way to get kills.”

St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Washington, Ottawa, Edmonton and the New York Rangers have victimized the Sabres during the 12-game slump. The next four opponents could help Buffalo regain confidence.

Los Angeles and its 28th-ranked power play come to town Tuesday. After that, the Sabres host the New York Islanders and their last-place power play. Following a visit to No. 12 Carolina, Buffalo will play on the road against Florida. The Panthers are tied with the Isles for last at 13.5 percent.

Of course, those teams might be looking at the Sabres’ numbers and getting excited, too.

“It’s killing us right now,” McCabe said. “We need to find a way to get out of it.”

The other half of the Sabres’ special teams joined the struggles against the Caps. Buffalo faltered on its opening four power plays before Kyle Okposo scored on the fifth with 7:57 remaining.

“We did make it a 2-1 game, but if we get the lead or tie the game earlier it’s a different story,” McCabe said. “Execution wasn’t there. That’s pretty much the gist of it.”

Okposo wasn’t impressed with anything the Sabres did.

“Obviously, it hurts giving up a couple PK goals, but I didn’t think we did enough to win the game,” he said. “We had a couple good shifts, some good spurts, but we just didn’t have that extra jam. The last few games we’ve had that push, and we just didn’t come with it.”

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