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Opponents slowing, but not stopping Sabres Scoring takes dive but wins continue

To find out why the Buffalo Sabres aren't filling the net as often, look 64 feet from the goal. That's where you'll find up to four guys wearing opposing uniforms. They're standing at the blue line with the sole purpose of keeping the Sabres from entering the offensive zone.

In one sense, the growing philosophy of how to defend the Sabres is working. The highest-scoring team in the NHL has been slowed during the past nine games. The Sabres are averaging 2.8 goals over the span. That's almost two goals off the 4.6 pace they set for the opening 22 games of the year.

"I think it's no secret now that teams are more prepared to play us," Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek said Friday. "They're more in a defensive mode and don't want to give us as many scoring chances, not play a run-and-gun game with us -- which we knew we were going to face eventually. We're in this period right now where we just need to battle through it and work hard, and win those 2-1, 3-2 games."

The Sabres host the division-rival Ottawa Senators tonight in HSBC Arena. The Senators are well aware of the defensive strategy the Sabres are facing because they encountered the same thing last season when their offense was equally as prolific.

"I watched a little bit of Florida," Senators coach Bryan Murray said of the Sabres' 2-1 victory Thursday over the Panthers. "They just sat back with four men a lot of the time. They didn't get caught chasing in the offensive zone and giving odd-man rushes. If you do that to Buffalo, they score lots of goals. You just can't let that happen.

"I think that's the only adjustment teams really make. They did to us. We'd often face nights where four guys would be lined up across the defensive blue line and challenge you to dump the puck in and go battle for it. When teams play like that, they can keep the goals against down. You may not win, but you can keep the goals against down."

And that's where the defensive changes have proved ineffective. The Sabres are still winning. Despite the drop in goals during the nine-game stretch, the Sabres are 6-2-1. Six games have been decided by one goal, five wins to go with one loss.

"Those high-scoring ones are probably a little bit more exciting for the fans, plus as players we like them once in a while, too," Sabres co-captain Chris Drury said. "But winning a close game against a team that plays us well, it's a pretty good way to get two points."

The Senators are third in the league in scoring, so tonight may give the fans a break from the no-goal tedium that filled the arena Thursday. For that to happen, though, the Sabres will have to shoot more and improve their power play.

The Sabres' power play is just 4 for 50 during the past nine games. That's the second major factor in the recent scoring decrease.

The Sabres want to enhance their power play with one simple ingredient. Here's a hint: It's what the fans yell during every man advantage.

"Shoot!"

"We'll look at some stuff, but it's probably us mainly firing more pucks and trying to get more pucks to the net," Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell said. "We try to simplify things and shoot every time you get it, but you have creative guys out here and you don't want to take that away from anybody. You don't want to take that away from Danny [Briere] and [Drury] and a guy like Max [Afinogenov]."

The midpoint of the season is fast approaching. Teams learned in the first portion of the schedule that if they tried to match offenses with the Sabres, the result was a 7-4 or 9-1 loss. The philosophy opponents have now is resulting in 3-2 losses, but at least it has the Sabres thinking.

"You're going to have to play different," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Teams are going to play us different. We've got to learn to be able to adapt and be able to win those games.

"We would be foolish if we didn't try to adjust to how they're trying to play against us."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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