For 2½ months, the Buffalo Sabres’ penalty killers have been on a roll when the team has been short-handed. Their best effort of the season came Sunday against Colorado, when the Sabres killed off all six Avalanche power-play chances, including a 5-on-3 advantage in the third period that lasted two minutes.
The recent rush of successful kills has pushed the Sabres up to 11th in the NHL entering Monday at 81.4 percent – a season after they finished last in the league. When the Sabres meet the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday in Canadian Tire Centre, they will be facing the NHL’s lowest-ranked power play at home.
Veteran center David Legwand played just 11:50 in the game against the Avs but 5:56 of that came as a penalty killer, so they were quality minutes. Midway through the period, Zemgus Girgensons was nailed for a four-minute high-sticking penalty. After exactly two minutes of that penalty was complete, Josh Gorges was hit with another high-sticking call. Didn’t matter.
“When you do the right things and know what they’re going to try to do, you can eliminate things,” Legwand said Monday. “We had a good pre-scout on them knowing what they were going to do and we took, away as much as we could. We’ve got three guys, they’ve got five. We’re going to give up something but we want to give up the least percentage chance to go into the net.”
As it turned out the Sabres gave up just one shot on goal on the 5-on-3 as the Avs fired wide four times. Legwand, Ryan O’Reilly and Rasmus Ristolainen worked the first half of the kill and were followed by Brian Gionta, Jake McCabe and Zach Bogosian.
“We have to recognize what they try to do, who are the guys trying to shoot,” Ristolainen said. “We played it well. It was a huge kill. I think we took all the options away. They tried some one-timers but we had sticks in the lane, blocked those shots. It was very well played.”
Over the last six games, the Sabres have killed 17 of 19 penalties against them, with the only two goals coming on a pair of one-timers Friday night by Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk. Stretch back 15 games and the unit’s dominance is even more pronounced, with a 42-for-46 success rate or 91.3 percent. By comparison, Anaheim leads the NHL overall at 88.3 percent.
The Sabres were 26th in the NHL on Dec. 1 at 75.4 percent. Since then, they’ve killed at a rate of nearly 84 percent.
Legwand’s burgeoning value to the club isn’t going to be judged by his pedestrian statistics. In 54 games, he has four goals, seven assists and a minus-4 rating while averaging just 9:35 per game. But at 35, Legwand is a sounding board for the Sabres’ young players.
“You need to have that veteran presence of a guy,” said defenseman Josh Gorges. “The way he plays, the things he does on the ice, it’s more his mannerisms. When the games are tight, things are getting a little off-kilter with a 5 on 3, he’s calm, cool and collected. He goes out there gets the job done. It’s not panic time. Just go play.”
“It’s fun,” Legwand said. “This stage of your career, you want to help as much as possible and be out there as much as possible to help these young kids grow. The young talent around here is phenomenal and it’s growing every day.”
Jack Eichel has often spoken this season about the impact Legwand has had on his rookie year, both on and off the ice. Ristolainen echoed those thoughts Monday.
“He’s a great leader in the room and on the ice,” Ristolainen said. “He talks a lot and helps everyone out. He’s been huge for us.”
Coach Dan Bylsma said Robin Lehner will start in net Tuesday against his old teammates, just as he did in Buffalo’s 3-2 win in Ottawa on Jan. 26. Lehner made 34 saves in that game and survived as a potential game-tying goal was ruled to have entered the net just after the buzzer sounded.
Strangely enough, Tuesday is the one-year anniversary of the concussion Lehner suffered when colliding with teammate and ex-Sabres forward Clarke MacArthur. Lehner never played for the Senators again as Andrew Hammond was called up from the minor leagues and backstopped the Sens into an unlikely playoff run.
Bylsma could go back to Chad Johnson for Friday’s game in Columbus, leaving Lehner for Sunday afternoon’s nationally televised showdown against the Sidney Crosby-led Pittsburgh Penguins.
Tuesday’s game will be the fourth overall and second at home with the Sens for veteran defenseman Dion Phaneuf, acquired in last week’s nine-player blockbuster with Toronto. Phaneuf is playing on Ottawa’s second pair with Cody Ceci.
Phaneuf has three assists and a minus-1 rating in his first three games for Ottawa, all losses. He played 25:21 in Saturday’s loss at Columbus, his highest ice time figure since Nov. 7.