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Long shots are a best bet for making power play work

Rest assured, the Buffalo Sabres' power-play units are not wearing ear plugs. When the 18,690 fans in HSBC Arena start screaming "shooooot," the players hear it.

Believe it or not, that's what they want to do. Really.

"There's no science to it," coach Lindy Ruff said. "Most goals -- over 70 percent of the goals on power plays -- are led from somebody shooting from the point, or one of those guys in a high umbrella [standing on the edge of the faceoff circles] getting a shot through and the goaltender's scrambling on a rebound. Not often do you score a goal where you get five passes and all of a sudden it's in the net. That's a rarity."

Right wing Dainius Zubrus took the goal total 20 percent further.

"Honestly, you can go back and analyze 100 goals on the power play, the last 100 goals in the NHL, and I think 90 percent will be a shot of some kind," he said. "You have to shoot from the point or a little farther out."

So, with all that said, the Sabres enter their best-of-seven playoff series against the New York Islanders thinking shoot first, celebrate later. Now it's just a matter of creating shots.

The Sabres, whose power play slipped to 17th after finishing third last season, excelled against the Islanders. They scored six times on 23 chances, good for 26.1 percent and a big boost from their season average of 17.4 percent.

The Sabres will start the series with two main units. The first features Chris Drury at center, Daniel Briere at left wing and Zubrus on the right, with Brian Campbell at the left point and Tim Connolly on the right. The second unit consists of three linemates -- center Derek Roy, left wing Thomas Vanek and right wing Maxim Afinogenov -- with Jason Pominville at the left point and Dmitri Kalinin on the right.

Drury and Briere will set up to the left of goaltender Wade Dubielewicz, allowing them easy access to one-timers because they shoot right-handed. Roy and Afinogenov will be to the right of Dubielewicz because they shoot left-handed.

The units were nearly identical in effectiveness this season. Drury and Briere combined for 26 power-play goals, with Drury getting a team-high 17. Vanek (15), Afinogenov (seven) and Roy (six) combined for 28.

Though both units try to "keep it simple" by shooting, they succeed in different ways. Drury and Briere are most effective when they can pass to each other below the tops of the circles. They'll get the defenders moving and open shooting lanes for themselves.

"If we're doing well there, they quickly shut that down, and we have the ability to switch on the fly and get it up top and get point shots and rebounds and tips," Drury said.

"I think when you're one-dimensional and you're struggling at one of those, teams know it, so they take your best option away. Then I think we're kind of scrambling."

Opposing teams have slid their penalty-kill systems toward Drury and Briere, pressuring them while easing up on the point men. That's where the return of Connolly becomes important. He's one of the Sabres' best playmakers, so if the Islanders focus down low and leave him alone at the point, Connolly should have room to create chances.

"He can probably make more plays than some other guys can," Zubrus said. "That's why he's there."

The second unit properly utilizes Vanek, who may have the best hand-eye coordination in the NHL. He will be stationed in front of the Islanders goaltender, and from there he can quickly get his stick on shots and redirect them.

"We have Van, who's unbelievable in front of the net, positioning himself and tipping pucks," Roy said. "He's scored countless amount of goals for us.

"Usually, when things aren't going well, you just pound the puck to the net and you've got Thomas, who's one of the best tippers in the league establishing himself in front of the net."

If two defenders decide to shade toward Vanek, Roy and Afinogenov have the speed to drive toward the net. Roy sets up along the wall near the right faceoff circle, and he can pass down to Afinogenov near the goal line or back to Kalinin or Pominville at the point.

Said Vanek: "I think we're just effective because we have so many weapons on both units that if you cover one of them, our players are good enough to move it around."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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