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Sabres' Housley shows proof that net-front presence works

More often than not, it's easy to see why the Buffalo Sabres lose. Their efforts are typically subpar and so is their talent level.

But nights like Tuesday leave the team searching deeper. They matched the Anaheim Ducks with 33 shots. They had a decided edge in five-on-five puck possession, spending 11:54 in the Ducks' end compared with eight minutes of offensive-zone time for Anaheim.

The problem is the Sabres don't score during that five-on-five time. Buffalo's goals in the 4-3 overtime loss came short-handed, on the power play and at six-on-five with the goaltender pulled.

It's nothing new. Buffalo ranks last in five-on-five goals with 71. They are eight behind 30th-place Arizona and 53 behind co-No. 1 Toronto and the New York Islanders, who visit KeyBank Center on Thursday.

The lack of even-strength production has been particularly pronounced lately. In the last nine games, Buffalo has scored just six of its 21 goals at five-on-five. They've scored 10 times on the power play, three times short-handed, once during three-on-three overtime and once with the goalie pulled.

"Obviously, it's an issue," center Ryan O'Reilly said Wednesday. "We have to create more five-on-five and find a way to get these chances."

All year, coach Phil Housley has been preaching shot mentality and net-front presence. He brought up the game against the Ducks as his ideal illustration.

"You look at the Anaheim goals, they had people or players going to the net," Housley said. "That's what we need to do more of. I preach that all the time. First of all, we've got to have a shot mentality, then we've got to have net-front presence and more guys going there to pay a price to score."

He pointed to two of Buffalo's goals as proof. Zemgus Girgensons opened the game by scoring short-handed from below the goal line.

"He shoots a puck from a bad angle, but he goes to the net and he finishes it off," Housley said.

The tying goal from O'Reilly with 14.5 seconds left came with Evander Kane so close to Ducks goalie Ryan Miller that his skate was in the blue paint.

"You have Evander Kane right in front of Miller," Housley said. "You have a layer with Sam Reinhart, and that puck almost goes to the middle of the net. It's just having that mentality of getting there. Our D have to find ways to get the puck there to reward our forwards as well."

Housley all for the red, white and blue as Olympics near

As this group of players showed under Dan Bylsma, they know how to tune out a coach. But when Housley has video proof with his words, it should show the Sabres what they need to do.

"A lot of teams are fighting for playoff spots, and you have to fight for every inch out there," center Jacob Josefson said. "You have to play on the inside to make sure you get pucks on the net and have some guys in front of their goal. That's usually how you score goals this time of year."

Added O'Reilly: "It starts with playing harder and getting to the net front. We did a good job getting the puck in the zone and had some good zone time. I think we have to put a little more emphasis on playing heavier in front and looking for those greasy goals. From that, that's when we get those lucky bounces."

On the bright side, the Sabres' special teams are rocking. The penalty killers have scored in three of the last five games, and their seven short-handed goals rank tied for third in the NHL. The power play is a scorching 12 for 34 (35.3 percent) in the last 12 games.

"We're confident," O'Reilly said. "We go out there and we know we're going to score. That's different. I think at the beginning of the year we were a little hesitant. We weren't very comfortable.

"We've kind of found some of that now, and that helps a lot. Every time we go out there, we feel we can impact the game. That's where we want to be."

They just can't get there at five-on-five. It resulted in another frustrating loss, the fourth in a row, all at home.

"It's a little frustrating," defenseman Justin Falk said. "Obviously, we want to have that consistent effort and emotion in our game. We had that for the most part and battled back. We didn't get the results we wanted. A couple bad breaks. There wasn't really a lot of pretty goals.

"One of those games where you've just got to find a way to grind it out, and they seemed to get the bounce there at the end."

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