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Sabres think outside the box Penalty-killing unit limiting Islanders

UNIONDALE -- The New York Islanders spent much of Tuesday's practice hoping to conjure a little power-play something.

Up until now in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, the Buffalo Sabres have limited the Islanders to almost nothing.

"They had one really good shot," Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder said, "and that's pretty much all we've given them."

The Islanders scored on that shot, a Marc-Andre Bergeron one-timer from the point that decided Game Two. It has been their only successful power play on 11 chances, a significant reason why the Sabres lead the best-of-seven series, 2-1, entering tonight's Game Four in Nassau Coliseum.

Special teams are crucial to any club's postseason success, but the Sabres were acutely aware of their importance.

Once accustomed to short-handed stinginess, Sabres fans would blanch each time one of their boys went to the penalty box. Chances were better than ever an opponent would score on the power play.

The Sabres' penalty-killing swagger seems to have returned at just the right time.

"Playoff time you have to step up that extra step," Tallinder said after Tuesday's practice. "You have to block that shot. You have to do that out-of-character stuff because right now it's win or die on every shot."

A proud smile creased Tallinder's lips as he spoke about Buffalo's penalty killers. He spoke of the surly demeanor with which the unit has played.

"You can feel it when you go out there and play the penalty kill," Tallinder said. "You know. It's your [attitude] that 'Hey, here we are. You're not getting by us. You're not going to sneak by us.' "

The Islanders' power play in the regular season ranked 12th overall, scoring on 18.1 percent of their chances. They were fifth at home, converting 20.3 percent.

The Sabres, meanwhile, labored to find their penalty-killing groove a season after they led the Eastern Conference in short-handed efficiency. This season they ranked 20th overall and 29th at home. They were ninth on the road.

The Sabres struggled to replace stalwart penalty killers Jay McKee and Mike Grier and then dealt with a slew of injuries to their blue line. Through their first 76 games, their defensemen had missed a combined 69 games. Tallinder sat out 35 games, while partner Toni Lydman was sidelined for 15.

"Everything is working just a little bit better than the regular season right now," Sabres winger Jochen Hecht said. "We've been able to close down in the neutral zone and not give them the easy carry-in. Most of the times they dump it, and we've been able to get back and get it out again. If they set up, we seem to get some good blocks."

The Islanders failed to score on all four of their power plays in Game Three. They wasted a glorious chance to tie the game early in the third.

Islanders winger Ryan Smyth scored with eight seconds left in the second period to bring them within a goal, and Sabres center Daniel Briere was whistled for goalie interference 32 seconds into the third. Momentum should have been there for the home team, but the Sabres held the Islanders to zero shots on the power play.

"A power play is pretty simple," Islanders center Mike Sillinger said. "You have to establish a point shot and from there it's just crash the net. But give them credit. They're really aggressive on their PK. If you don't make good decisions with the puck and get the puck off the wall, that's where we find ourselves in trouble."

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said no matter what power-play adjustments the Islanders might make for tonight, he won't alter his strategies.

"The penalty-killing system we got is pretty well etched in stone," Ruff said. "It's based on being real aggressive, and if there's any delay we can get picked apart, but if we're aggressive we can take away their time. If we can keep the pressure going, we don't want to let them set up."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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