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Sabres' power play in deep freeze Players, coaches search for answers

The Buffalo Sabres aren't too happy with themselves. Listless starts, careless passes and not enough shots have yielded erratic results.
More frustrating than all of the above, however, is their power play.

"It's frustrating, especially because it went so well last year," Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell said. "It's not resulting in anything this year."

That's not entirely true, yet lately it certainly seems that way. The sloppy Sabres enter tonight's game against the Montreal Canadiens in the Bell Centre looking for answers to a number of issues, but their ineffective power play has been significant.

During the past 2 1/2 weeks, the Sabres mostly have been flummoxed with a man advantage. They have converted only three of their last 36 opportunities. Two of those three goals were scored while up two skaters. The other came on a night they had 10 chances.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, clearly irritated by the recent malfunctions, claimed the system wasn't to blame.

"We've had some opportunities. I don't think our guys particularly have done a very good job with it," Ruff said after running his players through a blue-collar practice Friday afternoon in George Mantha Arena. "I think a lot of time [it comes down to bad decisions]. I'd like to see better decisions. Sometimes our decisions on when to shoot and when not to shoot have been poor.

"What it comes down to is we haven't gotten enough pucks to the net, which has probably been our biggest problem. We've turned into a real pretty power play that hasn't given itself a real good chance to score."

The Sabres went into Friday ranked 10th on the power play, converting a respectable 18.2 percent of their chances. But they have slid down the chart in a short time. On Nov. 24, they ranked sixth on the power play at 20.5 percent.

Co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere and wingers Maxim Afinogenov and Thomas Vanek were pumping enough pucks into the net that few noticed how many Sabres were struggling to score power-play goals.

Reasons for the sputter are plentiful. In addition to poor decisions and shaky entries, Ruff noted that teams bear down on big guns Ales Kotalik (no power-play goals since Oct. 26) and Jason Pominville (none since Oct. 21) from blasting one-timers from the point. Campbell (none since Oct. 7) said passes aren't crisp enough. Briere stressed opponents are scouting the Sabres more heavily than before. Winger Jochen Hecht (none all season) admitted some have gone for glitz over practicality.

"We're looking to make the pretty plays," said Hecht, who promotes crashing the net for rebounds as a cure. "It makes you look better out there, makes you seem like a better player. But if you get the puck in the net off a tip or something you still get the results. It's tempting, that extra pass or holding onto the puck. But right now it's not working for us.

"You don't have to rush in and take the first shot you get, but in the one minute you're out there you at least want to get one or two good shots."

Don't expect Montreal to help Buffalo's power play find its legs. The Canadiens own the Eastern Conference's best short-handed unit, killing off 89.3 percent of the power plays they face.

The Sabres can't afford to maintain the general malaise that has taken hold of them, especially early in games, if they want to preserve their status as the only club not to have lost back-to-back games.

"We have a very talented team, but what's made the difference is we've outworked a lot of the teams that we've faced this year," Briere said. "A few times in the past couple weeks, that has slipped a little bit."

Only a sublime performance from goalie Ryan Miller kept Thursday night's 3-1 defeat to the Florida Panthers remotely close. Miller made 16 saves in the first period alone, while the Sabres managed only three shots.

"We've been able to bounce back," Ruff said. "There's nobody that's happy with the way we performed in our last game. We need to find a little more consistent ground. We can't put a performance like that. Tampa Bay was a good performance [a 4-1 victory Tuesday], and then we follow it up with that, that's unacceptable."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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SABRES VS. CANADIENS: Faceoff: 7:00 p.m. * Bell Centre

TV: MSG * Radio: 550 AM * Season series: Sabres lead, 2-0-1

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