It was time for a new drill Sunday morning in KeyBank Center. After three overtime losses in an eight-day span dropped the Sabres to 1-6 in 3-on-3 play, coach Phil Housley went for some specialized instruction.
The Blue team and the Gold team took their benches and it was time to go full speed at 3 on 3, complete with assistants keeping time of the five minutes and changes on the fly.
"I thought it went really well," Housley said. "It helped us recognize when we're getting in bad areas on the wall or we're getting squeezed on the puck to work to keep possession. We recognized a couple things when we went the other way on a 2-on-1 with the third guy adding but reading the play and maybe staying off a little bit in case there was a shot that missed the net. We have some safety back there and it was good to work on it."
Buffalo's 1-6 record is the worst in the NHL, and the six losses are tied with Detroit (2-6) for the most. In an eight-day span, the Sabres got beat three times in 3-on-3 play, in the final minute in both Chicago and St. Louis and in Friday's 5-4 defeat here against Carolina on a goal by defenseman Jacob Slavin.
At one point in Sunday's drill, Housley briefly stopped the proceedings to remind his players the keys in overtime are puck possession and quick changes. The Sabres have been guilty of overstaying shifts in the extra session and it's led to tired players and some goals. Housley also wants them to circle back at times, maybe even play the puck to their goalie while a change is going on, rather than just give it up with a bad shot.
"It was good, really good for us," said defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. "We need to practice it, get better at it. But it was fun and it was good for us conditioning-wise too."
Housley split up Jack Eichel and Evander Kane in the 3-on-3 session Friday. He started Eichel with Benoit Pouliot and used Kane with Ryan O'Reilly. The Slavin goal was scored with Eichel, O'Reilly and Jake McCabe on the ice and came 12 seconds after Kane failed to beat Cam Ward on a breakaway.
Sunday's drill gave some new players a chance at 3 on 3 and center Johan Larsson, who has only one goal on the season, scored at one point with a neat snipe to the top corner on goalie Robin Lehner. The coach said he will keep tinkering with the overtime lineup.
"It always happens in hockey where you're getting a Grade A+ look and it turns around the other way and you're picking it out of your net," Housley said. "We've been looking at that. We haven't gotten the results but we've had the opportunities so we have to be careful about changing too much."
Larsson's lone goal remains an empty-netter in the Oct. 15 win at Anaheim, but he was happy to make a major contribution in Friday's game. During a 4-on-3 penalty kill in the first minute of the second period and no score in the game, Larsson had consecutive shot blocks and then cleared the puck out of the Buffalo zone.
"It was a big moment in the game and you just try to be solid," said Larsson, who had six goals last year and 10 in 2015-16. "Our pre-scouts have been really good. We're well prepared. Things will obviously change at times out there but good preparation helps you a lot and we've had that."
"He's been a really good mainstay on our penalty kill," Housley said. "It's been really, really solid at home. He provides stability back there, one of the guys first over the boards. It really lifted our bench, got our guys going after he blocked those two shots."
The Sabres are 12th in the NHL on the penalty kill at 82.2 percent, a big jump from last year's No. 25 rating. But at home, Buffalo is tied for the fewest goals allowed and is second in percentage at 92.7, allowing just three goals on 41 chances. The Sabres are second in percentage to Minnesota, which has allowed three on 53 chances (94.3 percent). Buffalo has allowed a power-play goal in just two of its 15 home games.
"Guys want to pay the price in those situations," said Ristolainen. "It takes a lot of guts to block shots and the other night you see what Johan Larsson did. Three big plays right in a row. It turns the momentum right back to us."
It was a rare practice where the Sabres had every player on the ice. There were 24 players in all (14 forwards, eight defensemen and two goalies). Decisions have to be made for the three games this week on Nathan Beaulieu (flu) and Jacob Josefson (ankle), and both could return.
The final pre-Christmas games are here Tuesday and Friday against Boston and Philadelphia, respectively, and then Saturday in Carolina.
The Sabres kept their line combinations mostly intact Sunday, running a pair of three-man units and a pair of four-man units.
Eichel centered Kane and Jason Pominville while Larsson was between Pouliot and Sam Reinhart. The four-man units had O'Reilly centering Kyle Okposo, Zemgus Girgensons and Scott Wilson, while Josefson was in the middle with Jordan Nolan, Evan Rodrigues and Hudson Fasching.