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Little things add up to Sabres' skid Bad passes, poor hustle are cause for concern

There's no line on the stat sheet that reads "work ethic." It's impossible to look up "beaten to the puck" on the game summary. "Made a bad pass at the blue line"? Can't find that there, either.

That's one of the rare good things for the Buffalo Sabres over the past few days.

The Sabres enter tonight's game against the Carolina Hurricanes on a two-game losing streak, their first in two months. Two losses should hardly be cause for alarm during a 44-18-5 season. But the way the Sabres have been beaten -- by passing poorly, failing to shoot and admittedly getting outworked -- has bells and whistles screeching.

The Sabres took the day off Tuesday, a chance to rest before a stretch of six games in nine days to close their busiest month. When they return to the HSBC Arena ice tonight against one of the few teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference, they'll need to be better in a few key areas than they were against Ottawa and Atlanta.

The Sabres will have coach Lindy Ruff back after he missed one game to deal with medical matters for his daughter Madeleine. The Sabres announced today she had surgery Tuesday in a Buffalo hospital to remove a tumor from her brain. There were no further details about the tumor, but the Sabres said Madeleine is resting comfortably and everyone is looking forward to her speedy recovery.

Shots and hits are the most tangible evidence of why the Sabres looked nothing like the team that had won eight in a row before this skid.

The Sabres have been outshot in their past two games, 72-48. The combined total from the first two periods is a putrid 55-17. When the Sabres outshoot the opponent, they win 73.5 percent of the time -- tied for first in the NHL with Carolina. Though the Sabres are sixth in the league in winning percentage when getting outshot, the number drops to 58.6 percent.

The Sabres have been quick to say the early shooting disparity happened because the Senators and Thrashers started with more intensity.

"Ottawa was pretty desperate because of the situation of us being one point behind, and [Atlanta's] guys are playing for their playoff lives, so it's matching the emotion and it's matching the work ethic, and that's probably been our biggest thing the first two periods of both hockey games," assistant coach Scott Arniel said. "We didn't match what they were throwing at us."

Intensity is more than just yelling, "Let's get 'em!" It's also about focusing on the little parts of the job, like passes across the blue line. The Sabres haven't been shooting because they haven't been able. The players are either turning the puck over to the other team or not connecting with their teammates, forcing them to regroup and start all over again.

"Just simple stuff, little 5-foot passes, simple passes, we were just missing them," co-captain Chris Drury said.

Added Arniel: "The battles for pucks is probably the biggest thing. We turned pucks over a lot, so when we did get in and get set up, we turned around and threw the puck right back into their hands."

The inability to get shots off has plagued every line and position.

J.P. Dumont, Mike Grier, Brian Campbell and Teppo Numminen have zero shots the past two games. Thomas Vanek and Drury have one each. Daniel Briere had five of his against Ottawa.

The only players who have matched or exceeded their average shots per game are Ales Kotalik, Taylor Pyatt, Maxim Afinogenov, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Dmitri Kalinin, though he missed an open net against Ottawa.

The Sabres have been outhit the past two games, 43-34. A common refrain in hockey is "paying the price." Part of that is going into the corner for the puck despite knowing a 200-pound bruiser on skates is coming. But it's also working to keep the puck despite getting hit, or fighting off a check to maintain the assigned job in the defensive system.

The hits come harder and more frequently late in the season from teams trying to make sure of their playoff spot, teams such as Ottawa, Atlanta and Carolina.

"People, especially a team like that, they're making sure they're getting the puck out, and they've got guys finishing checks, and they're committed to their system defensively," Grier said. "Toronto did the same thing to us the other day in our building. They played a desperate, determined game, but we were able to kind of match it [in a 3-1 win]. We never matched it [against Atlanta], and they pretty much had their way with us. Down the stretch you just have to be ready to play at all times."

The Sabres are fourth in the East. They host second-place Carolina tonight and first-place Ottawa on Friday (both are sellouts). The Sabres sandwich a pair of games against 13th-place Boston with one in New York against the third-place Rangers. They close the month at seventh-place New Jersey.

All those teams figure to share the intensity exhibited by Ottawa and Atlanta, intensity the Sabres had while they were winning.

"I think we certainly have a group here that will get it back," assistant coach Brian McCutcheon said. "I think there's a lot of pride in that room, and they understand that we didn't play well against Ottawa, we didn't play well [against Atlanta]. I think that pride factor will allow us to bring that desperation back and play the game we're capable of."


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