TORONTO – A main goal of the preseason is to evaluate players. The guys Buffalo watched Friday were the penalty-killers.
They got way too much ice time – again.
The Sabres took nine penalties during a 3-0 loss to Toronto, giving them 18 in the last two games. While a few calls were part of the officials' crackdown on slashing, the rest were a result of flat-footed play.
"They were just skating, and we were getting caught behind them," center Ryan O'Reilly said in Ricoh Coliseum. "We know they're going to call it, and there was too much stick-checking, not enough skating."
Coach Phil Housley is tiring of the parade to the penalty box.
"It's one thing to take a penalty when there's a scoring chance," he said. "It's another thing to take an unnecessary penalty."
Buffalo took two slashing and hooking penalties apiece. It was also called for boarding, goaltender interference, cross-checking, tripping and too many men on the ice.
"It kind of relaxes as the season goes on," defenseman Matt Tennyson said of the high number, "but that's partly on us. We're taking penalties. We can't blame the refs for that.
"With the penalties we had to kill, I thought we did a pretty good job."
Indeed, the Sabres' highlight reel consisted of goaltender Linus Ullmark (32 saves on 33 shots) and the penalty-kill unit. Buffalo killed eight of the nine penalties, keeping the team in the game until Toronto scored two empty-net goals in the final 1:22.
"We don't want to be taking that many, but we did some good things on it," O'Reilly said. "That was one of the things we actually competed really well in. We won a lot of battles in that area.
"It would have been nice to take that momentum over to the five-on-five play, but with that many penalties you can tell it wore us out."
The penalty-kill duties fell heavily on O'Reilly and fellow forwards Benoit Pouliot, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Jacob Josefson, and defensemen Justin Falk, Taylor Fedun, Jake McCabe and Tennyson.
"It's tough for the preseason because everyone wants to get in the flow, start rolling lines and get the legs underneath and start feeling good about that," Falk said. "The reality is it seems like over half the game is special teams, which is tough to swallow for us right now.
"You try to prove you can contribute those areas. I think a lot of these calls, guys aren't even trying to take penalties. It's something they're going to really have to button down on. A slash a little too high or anything like that, they're calling it. It increases the discipline for everyone."
The Sabres' 8-for-9 showing on the penalty kill followed a 7-for-9 night Tuesday against Pittsburgh. They went 3 for 3 Monday against Carolina.
An 18 for 21 stat line is good anytime of the year. Although Buffalo doesn't want the second number to increase, it likely will Saturday when the Maple Leafs visit KeyBank Center to complete the home-and-home series.
Buffalo should be ready. The Sabres' penalty-killers are crediting their success to the new system being installed. While much of the talk has been about Housley's impact on the offense, it translates to the defensive zone, too. The Sabres refuse to sit back, which prompts mistakes by the opposing power play.
"It's just an aggressive style," Tennyson said. "If you have a chance to go you can go, try and put some pressure on them so they can't stay set up in the zone. We're all kind of buying into that system."