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Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe learning to be more aggressive

DETROIT -- Jake McCabe's explicit goals, in no particular order, are to block shots, shut down the opposing top line and antagonize whoever gets in his way.

He lives to get under an opponent's skin, and McCabe, a 25-year-old defenseman for the Buffalo Sabres, has accomplished all three with more consistency this season than at any point since being drafted in the second round in 2012. His 42 blocked shots lead the Sabres, and he has contributed two goals among 10 points with a plus-2 rating.

McCabe was outstanding as a rookie in 2015-16, but now he is a more well-rounded and reliable defenseman capable of joining the rush. Despite his progress, McCabe, much like his linemate Rasmus Ristolainen, is learning to walk the fine line between too passive and too aggressive.

He found himself on the wrong side Saturday night in Detroit.

"Tonight wasn't my best," McCabe told The Buffalo News after a 3-2 win over the Red Wings. "I was too passive, on my heels too much. But we got the two points. We battled all the way through."

McCabe fell in the neutral zone in the first period, leading to a 2-on-1 rush that Ristolainen broke up by poke-checking Thomas Vanek's pass across the slot. Detroit defenseman Dennis Cholowski skated by McCabe for a breakaway minutes later, and McCabe was called for two penalties.

The Red Wings scored 13:52 into the third period, four seconds after the Sabres killed McCabe's interference penalty to tie the game. Though Buffalo prevailed with Sam Reinhart's shootout winner, McCabe finished with a minus-2 rating and no shots on goal. Still, he had 19:13 of ice time and irritated Detroit's skilled forwards from front to finish.

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The performance didn't illustrate McCabe's impact during the Sabres' nine-game win streak. During that span, McCabe has a team-high 17 blocked shots and three takeaways. He ranks fourth among Buffalo defensemen in ice time and is a key cog in the league's fifth-best penalty kill.

McCabe had a breakout season in 2015-16 with 14 points with a plus-6 rating in 77 games, but Phil Housley's system has forced him to adjust. The results were ugly on the surface last season with 12 points and a minus-11 rating in 53 games. However, the Sabres' forwards are now dropping back whenever defensemen join the rush or crash the net in the offensive zone.

That has prevented turnovers from turning into odd-man rushes the other way and has helped defensemen grow more comfortable deploying Housley's strategy. Experience also has helped.

"Just kind of feeling the game out, really," McCabe explained. "Played the game long enough now where you know your spots when you can step up and to play, try to be physical or whatever it may be. It takes time in reading scenarios. We've had really good back pressure from our forwards to allow us to stay up, so it's been good."

Teams that can match the Sabres' speed pose a challenge. The Red Wings did so Saturday, particularly their top line of Anthony Mantha, Dylan Larkin and Justin Abdelkader. Larkin had a breakaway when Jack Eichel committed a turnover near the blue line in the offensive zone, and one errant pass gave Abdelkader the puck in front of Linus Ullmark moments into the game.

McCabe wasn't the only one to make mistakes. After watching Detroit use its speed to create three odd-man rushes in the first period, the Sabres had their defensemen get rid of the puck quicker to prevent turnovers at the blue line. After all, passive play led the Red Wings to pressure the blue line for much of the first two periods.

"I think a lot of that was our management," Housley said. "When we’re on and we’re making passes from board to board, we’re on the tape and we’re moving forward. It was just ahead of us. It was just off. They have a good transition game. They’re fast. When you allow them to use their speed, they’re very dangerous."

The Sabres' defensemen also need to be physical. While Rasmus Dahlin is more likely to use his speed to break up passes or force turnovers, McCabe, Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian torment opponents with their size and physicality. That too requires a balancing act and communication. Ristolainen leads the Sabres with 79 hits. McCabe is second with 41.

The Red Wings grew tired of their act early Saturday.

“That’s my role on this team," McCabe said last week after a win over the Philadelphia Flyers. "Be a backstop here that every night I’m competing my butt off, doing whatever it takes to win."

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