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Short-handed unit making big strides

A five-game winning streak has allowed the Buffalo Sabres to climb from the cellar. A 10-game hot streak has allowed their penalty kill to climb toward the elite.

The Sabres enter tonight's game against St. Louis with a short-handed unit that has made the transition from awful to mediocre to good. The Sabres have killed 33 of 37 penalties in the past 10 games, a mark of 89.2 percent. It has lifted them to seventh in the NHL.

They were tied for 13th prior to their shutdown run, and they were 20th last season, including 29th in HSBC Arena.

"It's been a point of emphasis that we needed better penalty killing this year," coach Lindy Ruff said Tuesday. "We've used seven [forwards] this year, where last year a lot of times it was four. All those units have done a nice job."

The Sabres have killed 15 of 17 penalties during their winning streak, but it's the timing of the kills that has been most impressive. The team took two third-period penalties in each of the past two games, but the short-handed unit has come through to keep the team in front.

"Those are times where the game's on the line, and we find a way to get a big kill," right wing Jason Pominville said. "It creates momentum as well. You talk about power play generating momentum sometimes, even though you don't score but you get a few opportunities, [killing a penalty] kind of gets everybody going."

The Sabres have had success against power plays that were doing well, and now they get to test a unit that is sliding. Montreal ranks first with the man advantage while Washington entered on a 4-for-7 burst, but St. Louis has converted just 3 of 23 over the past six games.

The Blues, meanwhile, rank first in penalty killing at 91.0 percent. The Sabres' season average has risen to 85.4 percent.

"We're all on one page," Sabres left wing Jochen Hecht said. "We know what we're doing out there."

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Fans selected three Sabres to start in the NHL All-Star Game last season. Based on the vote totals released Tuesday, it could be zero this season.

The leading vote-getter for Buffalo is Brian Campbell, but he's just fourth among Eastern Conference defensemen. Campbell has 63,031 votes, well back of leaders Andrei Markov of Montreal (115,007) and Zdeno Chara of Boston (84,111).

Goaltender Ryan Miller, who joined Campbell and the departed Daniel Briere in the starting lineup last year, is just fifth among netminders with 25,008 votes. Montreal's Cristobal Huet is first (64,351), while Philadelphia's Martin Biron is fourth (49,193).

The top Sabres forward is Maxim Afinogenov, and he ranks ninth with 33,080 votes. Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby is at the top with 177,873.

Voting at NHL.com continues through Jan. 2.

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Ruff will decide today whether to use Drew Stafford against the Blues. The right winger has missed three games with a shoulder injury and practiced without linemates Tuesday.

"I think Drew is able to play," Ruff said. "We'll just make a decision on whether we'll play him or not. I think that shoulder injuries are tough. He's chomping at the bit, but the more time we can get him the stronger it's going to be."

The coach was disappointed to return from the three-day road trip and find that defenseman Dmitri Kalinin was still hampered by his knee injury.

"It hasn't got a lot better, it hasn't gotten worse," Ruff said. "We're just kind of waiting for him to hit that moment where he says, 'Boy, it feels good now.' We thought we'd be there. We're probably three, four, five days behind."

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Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on Tuesday "it may be too late" to save the affiliation between the Sabres and Rochester Americans. The owner talked following his speech at a marketing convention.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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