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Sabres generating plenty of offense; Numbers show team attack has improved

Any scouting report on the Buffalo Sabres probably doesn't list them as an offensive juggernaut but in today's NHL, who is? Only five teams even average three goals per game.

Still, as the Sabres head into the final two weeks of the season in control of their playoff destiny, their offense is putting up the kind of numbers no one would have imagined. Especially when you consider leading scorer Derek Roy went down Dec. 23 and hasn't returned.

Consider these figures:

*The Sabres are eighth in the NHL and third in the Eastern Conference with 217 goals (not counting shootout winners). That's 16 more than the Alex Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals, eight more than Pittsburgh and even with Steven Stamkos-led Tampa Bay.

*They are tied for third in the East and tied for seventh overall in goals per game at 2.89.

*They are second in the East and fourth overall in shots on goal at 33 per game -- a figure that will be the highest in franchise annals since the 1975-76 season.

*The Sabres, who were off Sunday, have generated plenty of their offense in posting a 23-10-5 record since Jan. 1. Since then, they are averaging 3.26 goals -- which is higher than Vancouver's league-leading total for the season of 3.19.

"We have pretty good balance and we work hard for each other," said Thomas Vanek, who has 26 goals and still has a chance at his fourth 30-goal campaign. "We're pretty underrated but that's OK. I think we really could have even more goals with the chances we've had. Each line is creating a lot and it seems a different one is scoring every night."

One of the prime pieces of coachspeak you'll hear from Lindy Ruff, or any other NHL coach for that matter, is "pucks to the net." The Sabres are doing that better than almost anyone else.

"When you're down on the wall, you don't just want to take a wrist shot and hand it to the goalie where he sucks it in and catches it and you get nothing out of it," said center Jochen Hecht. "From there, you want to get it deep, battle around the net, get a cycle and find the high slot.

"In the beginning of the season, we took a lot of shots from the outside that had minimal to no chance. Now we're making those plays to the middle."

"Maybe a shot from the half-wall can create a rebound for somebody else if it's a good shot," added Jason Pominville. "You might not score on that first shot but it's about creating something for someone else. We've had some goals go off pads, shin pads, skates and that's one thing we're trying to do. Detroit did that really well in the past and we've followed that mold."

Brad Boyes joined the Sabres at the trade deadline from St. Louis and immediately noticed the difference in the style the Sabres were playing. It was a full rush up the ice often led by the defense and less cycling of the puck in the offensive zone.

"The biggest thing to me is the way our defense are involved," Boyes said. "They get the puck, skate with it and come over the blue line with speed to back off the other team's D and not allow them to stand up to us. We have four guys in the rush a lot."

Drew Stafford has had red-hot spurts that have produced four hat tricks and a team-high 28 goals. Vanek has dealt with plenty of frustration but continues to produce a lot of chances. Nathan Gerbe has been the hottest player of late and Pominville has 19 goals after hitting the new year with just one due to his concussion troubles.

Ruff insists the Sabres haven't made any major schematic changes to create offense but simply credits their work ethic.

"What has been better is we've been harder on pucks, been hanging on to pucks longer," Ruff said. "Players are determined not to give it up. And when we don't have it, I think for a good period of time the determination to get it back has been better."

One area the Sabres do seem to be utilizing more is a forward in the high slot to create more options in the offensive zone.

"We're trying to spread the zone out a lot," Pominville said. "Teams do such a good job collapsing that sometimes the play is to move it up to the defenseman, have a forward really high. Sometimes Boston will have a forward almost up at the blue line spreading everybody out. Once you do that, you usually create some havoc."

"That's a dangerous area, a great offensive tool to have that guy on both sides of the puck," Boyes noted. "You're in good position to get back [on defense] if you need to and to get a shot off from a dangerous spot."

Tyler Myers and Andrej Sekera have certainly been major figures in the offense, especially since the new year, and Jordan Leopold's 13 goals are the most from a Buffalo blueliner since Alexei Zhitnik's 15 in 1997-98. But Leopold is out for the rest of the regular season and perhaps longer with a broken bone in his hand.

The Sabres will learn more about Leopold's status today after he visits a hand specialist. They have another set of back-to-back games starting Tuesday in Toronto, with the New York Rangers coming to HSBC Arena on Wednesday.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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