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Sabres notebook: Faceoffs are a big deal to O’Reilly

DALLAS – Win a faceoff, collect the puck. Pretty easy theory to help a team improve, and it’s working well for the Buffalo Sabres thanks in large part to Ryan O’Reilly.

The Sabres were last in the NHL in faceoff percentage last year at 44.9 percent – the worst figure in the league since 1998. They were 29th in 2013-14, winning just 46.8 percent.

But O’Reilly has proven to be a dynamo in the circle and the Sabres entered Saturday’s game against the Dallas Stars 14th in the league at 50.3 percent. For his part, O’Reilly was tied for fourth among individuals at 58.8 percent.

“It’s a possession thing,” O’Reilly said prior to the game against the Dallas Stars in American Airlines Center. “Whenever you’re doing good on draws, you’re giving yourself another extra split second to possess it and make a play in the game. It’s huge for the game. It’s something I enjoy, a great way to start a shift … a great way to be engaged coming into the dot right away.”

O’Reilly had one of his best nights of the season Thursday in St. Louis, going 16-5 overall – and winning all 10 faceoffs he took in the third period and overtime.

“It can be frustrating when I lose the first couple. It gets in my head a little bit and I have to calm down and get back to things,” O’Reilly said. “I take the majority of the draws so I can get in a rhythm. I win a couple, I can get in a roll.”

O’Reilly entered Saturday with 266 faceoff wins, second only to Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux (285). O’Reilly is at 57 percent on even-strength faceoffs and is 61-24 (.718) on power-play draws. He’s also been remarkably consistent at home (59.3 percent) and on the road (58.2 percent)

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma agreed with the notion that faceoffs can be a strong mentality issue.

“You see a person lose confidence in the circle and their physical skill diminishes quickly,” Bylsma said. “You see a guy not confident about taking it or getting beat by a certain guy and they shy away. It’s a big attribute.

“There’s lots of statistics when it’s a draw in the offensive zone and numbers go up for people. You wonder why that is. What’s the difference between the offensive zone dot and defensive zone dot? There’s a huge part of it being mentality.”

O’Reilly entered Saturday’s game as the Sabres’ leading scorer with 16 points and as the NHL’s ice time leader among forwards at 21:42 per game. He said he was aware of the Sabres’ faceoff troubles when he was traded to the team on draft night and knew he would be a major component to fixing the problem.

“In this league, you see the faceoff plays that teams make and everyone has to be a part of the draw and know what you’re doing,” he said. “One little lapse and it can be in the back of your net. For us, we try to possess it and win as many draws as we can to help our ‘D’.”

O’Reilly often works with his teammates on draws. During Saturday’s pregame skate, he worked head-to-head with Jack Eichel under the watchful eyes of assistant coach Dave Barr.

“I enjoy helping him out,” O’Reilly said. “On draws where it’s a key faceoff, you have to get in there and be aggressive. I’m showing him some tools where I position my body that helps me on key draws.”

Bylsma is happy to have O’Reilly spreading his knowledge around the team.

“It’s a trait to be learned, not something that someone comes in and usually is gifted at,” Bylsma said. “You see the evolution of guys who are good in the circle. With Sidney Crosby, where he started at and where he is today are significantly different. It’s work in there, knowledge and experience. Ryan has that and hopefully can instill some of that on some of our younger players.”

Bylsma said after practice Friday he was concerned that he was burdening O’Reilly with two many defensive zone faceoffs, hurting his leading scorer’s offense in the process. O’Reilly shot down that theory.

“To me, it’s just as important keeping pucks out as putting them in,” he said. “I love those pressure draws. Those ones late in the game are the most fun. It’s an exciting part of the game that I enjoy. During the game, I’m not worrying that it’s another D-zone draw. I’m thinking, ‘We have to get this puck out and go down and score.’”

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Saturday’s game was Dallas’ 21st of the season – and already its 14th against the Eastern Conference. The Stars entered the game 10-3 against the East, easily the most wins by a Western club, and a 42-27 edge in goals. Dallas is 5-0 against the Metropolitan Division.

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Sabres defenseman Mark Pysyk missed his second straight game with a lower-body injury that coach Dan Bylsma called a bone bruise. Forward Tim Schaller was a healthy scratch.

The Stars played the game without defenseman Jordie Benn, the brother of captain Jamie Benn. He has been suffering from the flu.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com