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Loose play of Sabres’ top defense pair leads to losing

Rasmus Ristolainen and Josh Gorges are going to dig pucks out of their own net. Buffalo’s top defense pair plays against the opponent’s star forwards, so it’s inevitable they’ll be beaten for a few goals against.

There have been too many lately.

The duo has been on the ice for five of the 13 goals scored at even strength during the Sabres’ five-game losing streak, with Gorges victimized one additional time without Ristolainen. As Buffalo heads into the unfriendly confines of Chicago on Friday, the defensemen know they need to be better.

“We’ve been OK, but too many times I think we’ve been on the ice for goals against,” Gorges said Thursday. “A lot of different reasons for that, but at this level, this time of year, you need to play great. That’s the bottom line. Playing good is just not good enough.

“We all know as a group collectively, start to finish, top to bottom, we all have to be better, and that’s no different for me and Risto.”

The timing and nature of the goals has been troublesome:

• Jaromir Jagr was left wide-open during a rush chance and gave Florida a 1-0 lead.

• Henrik Zetterberg put Detroit ahead during a rush 2:27 into the third period.

• Nikolay Kulemin gave the New York Islanders a 2-0 lead with 1:07 gone in the third on a scrambly play in Buffalo’s zone.

• Washington’s Alex Ovechkin was left wide-open during another scramble just 19 seconds into the second period for the opening goal.

“The last couple games, they haven’t been our best ones,” Ristolainen said. “We’ve been struggling as a team, and I had a lot of ice time, so I’ve got to play better if I want to earn that ice time and try to help the team more.”

Coach Dan Bylsma broke up the pair during Thursday’s practice, with Ristolainen starting as the extra blue-liner. He eventually subbed in, with Bylsma saying he just wanted to get right-handed Zach Bogosian some reps on the left side. No matter the reason, the coach acknowledged he needs more from Ristolainen and Gorges.

“We’ve looked at it and talked about it with the pair,” Bylsma said. “There’s certainly some instances where the puck has gone in the net, rush plays that have gone in, and we’ve looked at those.

“But a lot of it’s been their execution with the puck. They’re playing against good lines and top lines, and their execution with the puck out of the defensive zone and breaking out has been a big part of the problems that they’ve faced.”

The Sabres can’t afford to be sloppy if they want to avenge the 3-2 shootout loss to the Blackhawks on Dec. 19. Gorges and Ristolainen were in the penalty box when Chicago tied the game with 34 seconds left, and the Sabres haven’t forgotten about it heading into the rematch.

“It’s one of those games that you should be excited to play in,” Gorges said. “It’s a tough test against a really good team with a lot of high-end players, but those are the games that you want to be a part of, being pushed to your best.

“Not to mention the way things unfolded last time we played them. We owe them another real good game, and I think we’ll be prepared for it.”

While Ristolainen continues to play the most minutes for the Sabres – he skated 27:31 against Florida, bumping his average to 24:48 per game – Bylsma has begun to ease back with Gorges. The 31-year-old averages 20:24 but is at 18:39 during the last five games. Bogosian and Jake McCabe have picked up ice time.

“We are more by committee,” Bylsma said.

Ristolainen remains the committee chairman. He’s tied for 11th among NHL defensemen with 26 points, but he has no goals in 11 games and has found the net in just one of the last 25, though the lone game was a hat trick.

“It wasn’t his strongest game last game, his play with the puck, but we’re talking about a guy who’s been a big part of our team and how we have played and gets big minutes and big assignments,” Bylsma said. “He’s been really good at that for us.”