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Sabres' 'killers on a roll Sixth-ranked unit to face Panthers

For only the fifth time since the tradition was established in 1978, the Buffalo Sabres didn't stage a Tux 'n' Pucks game for New Year's Eve.

When the Sabres arrive for today's game, they'll still be dressed to kill.

The Sabres historically have boasted one of the NHL's best penalty-killing units, and this season has been no exception. Top hats and cummerbunds won't be necessary for their home matchup with the Florida Panthers.

There's nothing stylish in how the Sabres operate against another team's power play.

"It is dirty work," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "The penalty-killers always like the challenge of "We're outnumbered. Let's outwork them' for whatever reason. They have that mentality."

Buffalo's penalty-killers went into Saturday night ranked sixth in the league, having exterminated 84.7 percent of the chances they've faced. They have thwarted 89.6 percent to rank third at home.

The Sabres weren't so efficient from opening night, but they eventually returned to their cold-blooded ways and steadily have climbed up the charts.

They have killed off 92 percent of opposing power plays in their last four games. They gave up one goal on five chances to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday and denied all eight chances the Atlanta Thrashers had Friday. That's 12 out of 13 against the league's No. 4 and No. 5 teams with the man advantage.

In going 18-2 with two shootout losses over its last 22 games, Buffalo has allowed more than one power-play goal just once.

"We've played the same system," said Ruff, who in his eighth season is the NHL's longest-tenured coach. "We've tweaked it a little this year in neutral-zone stuff with no red line, but once we're in the zone I'm a strong believer in the system we've played from Day One.

"It just rolls over from player to player. We've got guys with good sticks and good heads on them, and when we need it we get good saves."

The Sabres kill penalties by committee. Defensemen Toni Lydman, Henrik Tallinder and Jay McKee lead the Sabres in average short-handed ice time at about 4:20 a game, placing each in the neighborhood of 60th among the league's busiest killers.

Ruff also prefers snappy shifts for his forwards.

Chris Drury, Mike Grier, Jochen Hecht and Tim Connolly are in the three-minute range. Drury, at 3:10, leads Buffalo forwards but ranks 192nd in the league. Derek Roy and Jason Pominville average close to two minutes.

"We rotate a lot of players in those positions," Sabres goalie Martin Biron said. "The guys go out there 20, 25 seconds. The first time it's out of the zone we get a change, get some fresh legs. That allows us to get a lot of pressure, and it's a controlled pressure. When one guys goes, the other three know how to respond. It's not a free-for-all, running around."

Ruff summed up his penalty-killing formula in three basic principles: shot lanes, stickwork and desire.

"A - you have to be in the shot lane if you want to be a penalty-killer," Ruff said. "B - you have to have a good stick. Your stick has got to stay active. C - when you have a chance to be aggressive you be aggressive."

Buffalo's short-handed desperation shows up in the blocked shots column. McKee was ranked second and Lydman sixth. Among all forwards, Drury was seventh and Connolly 17th.

"You've gotta have a willingness to get hit with pucks," Ruff said.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a good faceoff man either. Drury, among the league leaders overall, is winning 55 percent of his short-handed draws. Ruff also uses Paul Gaustad on faceoffs, then quickly swaps him out with a more mobile penalty killer such as Roy or Pominville.

"Nine times out of 10 you can limit the opposition to maybe that one chance," Ruff said. "We're trying to melt down a power play to "If we give up anything, let's not give up more than one in two minutes.' "

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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