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Sabres using subtle changes, goaltending to shut down power plays

The preparation begins with the Buffalo Sabres watching video of the opponent's power play and assistant coach Steve Smith delivering a game plan.

There's little ice time to practice  adjustments, especially during a mid-season slog like the six-games-in-nine-nights stretch the Sabres finished Saturday in Detroit. With that in mind, Buffalo's penalty-killing units are sure to pay attention during pregame scouting meetings.

That's where Smith, who was hired by Phil Housley in July to work with the defensemen and the penalty kill, instructs the Sabres on subtle changes to stop opponents when shorthanded. The onus is on the Sabres to block shots, break up passes, make saves and keep the front of the net clear of forwards.

The game plan has played out almost flawlessly for the Sabres, who can achieve their third 10-game winning streak in franchise history Tuesday night when they host the San Jose Sharks at 7.

"Special teams are such a big part of the game these days," winger Zemgus Girgensons said. "If you have good penalty killing, you can win a lot of games. You really need to pay attention when we have those meetings about the other team. We have guys who are on the same page all the time."

Entering Monday's games, Buffalo's penalty kill ranked fifth in the NHL at 82.6 percent and has killed 24 of its last 26 penalties, including all four in a 3-2 shootout win over the Red Wings on Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena. The Sabres finished 22nd in the league last season.

Some of the personnel is the same, including Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe and Marco Scandella. Ryan O'Reilly is gone after receiving the fourth-most ice time shorthanded last season. Benoit Pouliot and Justin Falk also are gone.

Zach Bogosian is healthy after playing only 18 games last season, plus general manager Jason Botterill acquired Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotoka, two capable penalty killers from St. Louis in exchange for O'Reilly. Most important, the Sabres have received outstanding goaltending from Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark.

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When Smith was hired, he chose to change the Sabres' penalty-killing system to improve the team's ability to cut down shooting lanes. Opponents were getting too many open looks last season. There's also an emphasis on making subtle adjustments. For example, the Sabres made a concerted effort to prevent the Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin from setting up for a one-timer in either circle during the power play when the teams played last week.

That helped the Sabres hold the Penguins scoreless in two opportunities during a 5-4 come-from-behind overtime win. The Sabres now move together in a 2-2 box formation when down a player in their own zone, with forwards pressuring opponents from the blue line to the face-off circles.

One defenseman chases loose pucks in the corners and behind the net while cutting down passing lanes. The other clears the front of the net. The system isn't revolutionary, but it has helped limit scoring chances.

"They’ve done a terrific job through this stretch," Housley said of the penalty kill units. "Obviously your goaltender is your best penalty killer. ... Guys have put themselves in front of pucks. That’s the price they have to pay. There’s not a lot of recognition for it, but the guys realize it. They’re standing up and cheering our guys on because they know that’s a tough job."

Hutton, signed to a three-year contract in July, is second in the NHL with 11 wins while posting a .919 save percentage and 2.53 goals against average in 18 games. He's 7-0 with a .934 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average during the win streak. However, Hutton has a .882 save percentage when shorthanded, allowing 10 goals on 85 shots.

Ullmark's save percentage is .920 when shorthanded with two goals allowed on 25 shots. Both have made saves at key moments to bail out teammates, but the Sabres have allowed the fifth fewest scoring chances when shorthanded and sixth fewest "high-danger chances," according to Natural Stat Trick.

They have allowed only two power-play goals during the win streak and neither occurred because of an egregious mistake by a forward or defenseman. The Sabres have succeeded with communication and choosing to keep a conservative approach. That has come at a cost with the Sabres having the fewest short-handed scoring chances in the league, but they're willing to take that trade.

"Preparation," Larsson said. "Good saves have helped. Everyone is on the same page out there. No one is trying to overdo it. That gives us a lot of confidence. We also had another win where we got a couple. We just have to keep it going."

Though the Sharks' power play ranks 15th in the NHL, four of their 16 goals with a man advantage came against the Sabres last month. Since 2013, only three defensemen have more power-play points than the Sharks' Erik Karlsson. His teammate, Brent Burns, has one fewer point during that span.

Over the past week, Buffalo's players have cautioned how quickly success can turn to failure. The two penalty-killing units echoed that sentiment. Their singular focus is to bail out any teammate in the penalty box, even if that means sacrificing themselves to block a shot.

"Any time you take a penalty, it’s a tough feeling," Girgensons said. "You always feel for a teammate when that happens. You don’t want the other team to score while you sit there for two minutes. You’re praying they don’t score."

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