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SABRES TOPS IN SHORT GAME

When the Buffalo Sabres are doing what they do best, no sirens sound in HSBC Arena.

No music plays, no graphics burst onto the big screen and no lights flash.

Specifically, no red lights come on. That's how the Sabres know everything is working.

Buffalo, despite its yo-yo trip through the Eastern Conference standings, has enjoyed a steady effort from its quietest and most effective unit. The Sabres have killed 87.6 percent of opponents' power plays this season, making them the best penalty-killing squad in the NHL.

"We have our system. We know exactly what we are supposed to do -- our forwards, our defense. And we are aggressive," goalie Dominik Hasek said. "We know exactly what to do on the ice, and that's why we are in first place."

The ascendence of Buffalo's penalty-killers is that much more impressive given that the short-handed unit is, well, short-handed. By the time valued penalty killer Denis Hamel suffered a season-ending knee injury Jan. 27, the Sabres already had been shy two killers this season in Dixon Ward, now with the Boston Bruins, and season-long holdout Michael Peca.

"I think that's one area everybody anticipated we might be hurting without Michael, but in his absence some other players have come up and have done a large job for us," coach Lindy Ruff said. "I think in Michael's absence you learn a lot about different players because you give them bigger roles. We've had some players that have really cherished the opportunity to play in those situations."

This year's most prominent short-handed hands include defensemen Jay McKee, Rhett Warrener, Richard Smehlik and Alexei Zhitnik and forwards Stu Barnes, Vaclav Varada and Curtis Brown. But the Sabres also have received strong efforts from substitute killers like Erik Rasmussen, Chris Taylor, Doug Gilmour and Miroslav Satan.

That depth, combined with top-flight goaltending, has stymied teams from Atlanta to Ottawa. The Sabres have racked up 1,770 penalty minutes, allowing just 29 power-play goals against in 234 tries.

"It's a lot easier when you don't depend on three or four guys. There's any amount of guys we can use at times," assistant coach Don Lever said.

"Usually we use six, seven forwards and four or five defensemen, so I think everybody gets involved. It's not just four or six guys killing penalties all the time," Zhitnik said. "It's a team sport."

The Sabres, like most teams, do not practice playing short-handed. Killing penalties is a physically punishing pastime, calling on players to block shots, dive in front of passing lanes and change direction quickly and often. To do those things in practice would be to invite a spate of injuries; instead, the coaches make adjustments by showing video and drawing on dry-erase boards.

"Penalty killing, it's all reaction on the ice," Zhitnik said. "You've got to react to what the opposite team is doing, and you've got to go with your feelings."

And you've got to have great goalies, which Buffalo enjoys in starter Hasek and backup Martin Biron.

"A big part of penalty killing is goaltending. We've got two of the best penalty killers between the pipes," Lever said.

Hasek, not known for his modesty, won't take all the credit for this team effort.

"It seems like the last couple of games -- I don't want to say we are lucky, because we do a really good job. They had power plays, but they did not have great chances. They had good chances, but most of the time I could see the puck. Most of the time the shots were from the bad angles," he said.

"It's a great accomplishment to be first in the league, for every penalty killer."

Ruff said that Dave Andreychuk, who has missed two games with a knee injury, likely will play Thursday night in New Jersey. . . . Vladimir Tsyplakov suffered an abdominal strain in Monday night's second period, and is expected to sit out Thursday night.

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