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With quarter of season done, Sabres need to pick up pace

When the Sabres dropped out of contention last season, Dan Bylsma introduced a motivational tool. The coach broke the rest of the year into three-game segments, and he wanted Buffalo to win two of three – a pace that would mimic a playoff team.

As the Sabres hit the quarter point of 2016-17, they’ve struggled mightily in their three-game stretches. They have a chance to win one Friday in Washington. They’ll need to win a lot more.

Buffalo has fought through key injuries to earn almost a point per game. They have 19 in their 20 outings. That’s eight points below Bylsma’s desired playoff pace, however. There’s still three-quarters of the season left, but Buffalo has ground to make up to end a five-year playoff drought.

The Sabres have completed six three-game series so far. They accomplished their goal in only one of them. They went 3-0 against Florida, Winnipeg and Minnesota. In the other segments, they’ve gone 1-2 twice, 1-1-1, 0-1-2 and 0-2-1.

They’ll close their seventh segment against the Capitals at 5 p.m. Friday. They’ll enter Verizon Center at 1-0-1 after beating Calgary and losing in a shootout to Detroit. A victory or appearance in overtime will get them the desired points out of an available six.

“We’ve got three points now and have got a chance to get the fourth and fifth point, which would be a positive for us,” Bylsma said after a Thanksgiving practice.

The slow start has made it almost necessary for Buffalo to win at a two-out-of-three pace for the rest of the year. The final playoff team in the Eastern Conference during the past three seasons has averaged 95.6 points. If the Sabres have a .667 points percentage during their final 62 games, they’ll pick up 82 points. Added to the 19 they already have, their season total would be 101.

That would make them a playoff team, but there’s not much room for error.

Here are other key numbers with the Sabres putting one-quarter of the season behind them:

*The team is 15th out of 16 in the Eastern Conference and 25th out of 30 in the NHL.

*Though there are six teams between Buffalo and a wild-card spot, they are only four points back.

“Given our situation, we lament about a few points we left on the table with the shootouts and overtime loss,” Bylsma said in KeyBank Center. “You feel like with those four points and with the situation we’ve been with our team for the first 20 games, we could be right there.

“As it stands we’re only four points out of where we want to be. Hopefully, you get some players back and continue to go forward from here.”

*The offense is trudging at a tank-like pace. The Sabres are at the bottom of the NHL with 1.85 goals per game. During their two last-place seasons from 2013 to 2015, the Sabres averaged an identical 1.85 goals per game.

*The Sabres have the fewest third-period goals with 12.

*Buffalo’s goal differential of minus-12 ranks 24th. Calgary is the worst at minus-18.

*The Sabres’ stinginess in allowing goals has kept them afloat. They have given up just 2.35 goals per game, which ranks seventh in the league.

*Goaltender Anders Nilsson is tied for the NHL lead in save percentage with Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy at .951. Robin Lehner and Calgary’s Chad Johnson are tied for 16th at .922.

*Nilsson’s goals-against average of 1.74 is fifth in the NHL. Lehner’s 2.38 GAA is 23rd.

*Opposing teams have had chances to score. Buffalo has allowed 32.4 shots per game, the fourth-highest number in the league. The Sabres are averaging 29.3 shots, which ranks 16th.

*The Sabres’ power play has been effective. With a success rate of 21.2 percent, the unit ranks ninth. The Sabres are 10th at home (22.9 percent) and 11th on the road (19.4 percent).

*The penalty-kill unit has let the team down. Buffalo is No. 22 at just 80.6 percent. It is seventh at home at 88.5 percent but ranks 25th on the road at 75.6 percent.

*The Sabres’ leading scorer, Kyle Okposo, is tied for 93rd in the NHL with 12 points. He is on pace for 26 goals and 26 assists.

*Forwards Derek Grant and Evander Kane, and defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe are looking for their first goal. Defensemen Josh Gorges and Dmitry Kulikov do not yet have a point.

*Ristolainen ranks fifth in the NHL in ice time at 26:09 per game.

*Left wing Marcus Foligno is tied for second in the NHL with 70 hits.

*Jack Eichel has practiced for two straight days, and Ryan O’Reilly will play his second game in a row.

“We’re getting back some players now,” Lehner said Thursday. “If we can keep working on playing the way we should be and the way we have the last three games … it’s not like we’re in that big of a hole. There’s a lot of games left, so it’s a good opportunity for us to keep working.”

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