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Sabres frustrated by struggles since winning streak, readying for difficult road ahead

Rasmus Dahlin swung his stick not once, but twice at the boards following an intense practice drill in HarborCenter. That powerful display of raw emotion was the culmination of a trying one-hour on-ice session for the Buffalo Sabres' rookie defenseman.

"That was a pretty stupid move, but sometimes you get angry," Dahlin lamented Friday afternoon. "It’s a way to get the frustration away."

That also illustrated how he and his teammates felt following a 4-1 loss in St. Louis one night earlier. The Sabres, 21-12-5 with 47 points for third place in the Atlantic Division, have only four wins in 13 games since their 10-game win streak was halted Nov. 29, and again had a letdown against a struggling opponent.

While the improvement from a 25-win season in 2017-18 is still remarkable, the standard has changed in Buffalo. All involved arrived Friday morning intent on fixing the problems in time for a Saturday prime-time game against the Boston Bruins in KeyBank Center.

"Our next handful of games are against teams that are right there with us," Jason Pominville, who could return from injury Saturday, said. "You want to make sure you push them back. But the biggest thing for us is worrying about our game and getting back to playing the way we know we’re capable of and playing the way that led to us having success. We’ve slipped away a little bit from it."

Pominville watched as his teammates allowed three second-period goals against the Blues, who are sixth in the Central Division and own a negative-15 goal differential. St. Louis had 19 of the game's 23 shot attempts during the first 11 minutes of the second period.

Again, the Sabres allowed too many scoring chances and did not generate enough, particularly their bottom three lines. Since the win streak ended one month ago, the Sabres are 4-6-3 with a negative-7 goal differential and negative-29 shot differential.

While there are concerns about secondary scoring – the top line has accounted for 16 of the team's 22 5-on-5 goals since the streak ended – several Sabres said the team's play away from the puck is to blame for the struggles.

Since Nov. 29, an inability to forecheck and backcheck have contributed to Buffalo having the NHL's sixth-worst Corsi-for percentage, which measures the percentage of shots attempted by a team during 5-on-5 play.

"We just have to stick to our game and make sure that we’re working away from the puck," winger Kyle Okposo said. "I know that’s a really big thing for our team. When we’re playing well, everybody’s working away from the puck, hunting guys down and getting back, being good defensively.”

The Sabres also are giving opponents too much time and space in the defensive zone, as displayed Thursday when Sam Reinhart allowed St. Louis defenseman Jay Bouwmeester to skate forward for an uncontested slap shot on Carter Hutton. Such breakdowns were pointed out by coach Phil Housley and his staff during a film session Friday morning. All involved came to a consensus the Sabres failed to respond when the Blues played desperate for the final 40 minutes.

"We’ve done a great job up to this point," Housley said. "We’ve put ourselves in a great position, but it is going to get harder. It’s going to get tougher. Time and space, there’s not going to be a lot of it, so we need to continue to focus and stay the course and not break at times."

As a result, the Sabres' ramped up the intensity in practice Friday. There were 3-on-1 and 2-on-2 drills to start. Housley tweaked his lines, except Jack Eichel's first line, and made his players practice forechecking and backchecking. Still, he did not appear to be overly concerned about his team's play.

After all, they lost by one goal in Washington on Dec. 21 before beating Anaheim, 3-0, last Saturday. Buffalo also had to travel Thursday morning to St. Louis because of the collective bargaining agreement-mandated holiday break, which Housley said contributed to some of their struggles against the Blues.

The Sabres hold a three-point lead over the Bruins in the division and have one of the most potent top lines in the NHL. Eichel is playing the best hockey of his career, Jeff Skinner has 26 goals and Reinhart is having an exceptional season with 37 points in 38 games.

Okposo, who was reunited on a line with Casey Mittelstadt and Conor Sheary during Friday's practice, has not scored a goal in 20 straight games. Sheary's only goal in 18 games was an empty-netter. The drop in production is in stark contrast to when 17 different players scored during the win streak.

The Sabres' forwards are receiving less time and space to generate chances. Simply put, they are no longer surprising anyone in the NHL and Housley wants them to respond.

“It’s just going to get harder, but we’re up to the challenge," Okposo said. "You just have to make sure that you’re doing the right things every day.”

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