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Mike Harrington: At least for one day, Sabres' defense doesn't rest

Lo and behold, the Buffalo Sabres actually can play some defense.

In the wake of Saturday's 3-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings in KeyBank Center, the takeaway will be to see if that game is the outlier, the aberration in a group of performances that have been among the franchise's worst defensively in many years.

There were plenty of sights for coach Phil Housley's sore eyes in this one.

Marco Scandella working over Luke Glendening in front of the Sabres goal and eventually putting him to the ice. Rasmus Ristolainen doing likewise with old friend Thomas Vanek, allowing Linus Ullmark to grab the puck and force a faceoff. Zach Bogosian going prone with his stick extended to knock the puck away and foil a 2-on-1 break.

There were few players easily strolling through the slot unimpeded for a chance at the net, not a lot of odd-man rushes against. And when there was a defensive misfire, like on Andreas Athanasiou's third-period breakaway, goalie Linus Ullmark was there to make a save and keep things flowing in the right direction.

Ullmark said it was a much easier game for a goalie to play because the Sabres held their position and were guarding the far side of the ice, allowing the goalie to mind the short side. Housley and defensive coach Steve Smith had been pleading with their players to stay home and not chase pucks behind the net or in corners, which was leading to the slot being left wide open at times.

Zach Bogosian breaks up a 2-on-1 in the second period. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Ullmark loved the Ristolainen play for its subtle impact.

"It's a small play that people might not notice because nothing fancy happened," Ullmark said. "It's just me putting my glove on top of the puck. It's what happening before that allowed me to do that."

"Systemwise, we've got to be all on the same page, know what we're we're doing out there," Ristolainen said "Everyone has to know their responsibility but today was a little better for sure. We got the result we wanted, goalie played great and we go on to the next one."

By the numbers

How much of a turnaround did Saturday's win mark?

The Sabres had given up 17 goals and 105 shots on goal in the last three games but still managed to go 1-1-1. In mid-January, meanwhile, they dropped three straight while giving up 16 goals on 85 shots. Just far too many goals.

The Red Wings managed 29 shots on goal Saturday but weren't all that dangerous until the third period, when they were really pressing the action to try to overcome their two-goal deficit.

The Sabres entered Saturday having given up 51 goals in 13 games since the calendar turned to 2019. That's an average of 3.92 per game — and only Colorado (4.15) and Anaheim (4.0) have been worse.

It has been a total defensive failure the last three weeks. Forwards not coming back and cheating too much to go for offense. Defenseman dropping coverage and not using their bodies to clear a path in front of the net. And ultimately, goalies not making nearly enough saves.

The combined save percentage of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark in that span was a paltry .875, ahead of only the woebegone Avalanche.

For the season, the Sabres stand 16th in the league in goals against (166) and 20th in goals-against at 5-on-5 at 112. Those are hardly terrible figures, but they have been driven up by the nightmare of the 10 games that led into Saturday.

The Sabres gave up 45 goals while going 3-6-1 in that stretch and also gave up 310 shots on goal. That's only a save percentage of .855.

"It's a choice you've got to make, protecting your own net and having respect for it," Housley said after Thursday's 6-5 overtime loss to Carolina. "You look at the game and five of the six goals come right in front of our net. That's an area that players from the opposition should be very wary of going into. We've got to be tougher to play against. We've got to start pushing guys out, boxing guys out."

Sabres pounce on power play, setting stage for 3-1 win over Red Wings

Desperation on defense

The Sabres are currently playing with eight defensemen and a ninth (Casey Nelson) is on a conditioning loan to Rochester while trying to work his way back after being on the injured list since Nov. 30.

Housley has been forced to do plenty of shifting of his defensive pairs, some due to injury but most due to inefficiency. Ristolainen continues to be the workhorse, entering Saturday averaging 25 minutes 13 seconds per game. Bogosian (21:37) and 18-year-old wunderkind Rasmus Dahlin (20:47) are the only others averaging over 20 minutes.

Dahlin is running the best Corsi rating among the defense regulars at 5 on 5, with just a shade over 51 percent of all shot attempts in Buffalo's favor while he's on the ice. Ristolainen (47.0) and Marco Scandella (46.9) are at the bottom of that list.

It's interesting to note that rookie Lawrence Pilut, who has played only 20 games, has a 51.8 percent Corsi and oft-healthy scratched Nathan Beaulieu is at 50.3. Social media has spent much of the season bemoaning the on-ice presence of the veteran Scandella while Pilut and Beaulieu often sit.

"We've got to be more desperate in front of our net," Scandella said. "Every play counts this time of year. You have to play like it's playoff hockey. I feel like everyone is excited about it. We have a hungry group. We're young and learning together. You have to embrace how hard it's gonna be."

Like any NHL team, the Sabres spent countless hours in video sessions. Some are fun to watch. Others can be horrifying.

"It's about time we translate our words to action," Ristolainen said. "We've been talking about it. It took a little while to do it. We saw when we do it, we'll get the result most of the nights.

"In split seconds, you've got to make decisions. The guy you're with makes decisions. Sometimes they are different, sometimes they are right ones. You have to read off each other, be on your toes and play hard."

A dilemma in goal

The defense hasn't helped the goaltending out at times and the goaltending hasn't bailed out its team at other times. They've been equal opportunity offenders, so both elements working in concert Saturday was especially important.

"The game's wide open. You look across the league and there's a lot of high-scoring games," goalie Carter Hutton said after practice Friday. "It's just the way the league is trending. I think they've changed the bunch of rules and it's the way the game is."

Hutton was clearly referring to the reduction in the size of goalie equipment and the emphasis on calling slashing penalties the last two years that has created more power-play chances. But that's the same, of course, for every team. What's different here?

"At certain points, our game fluctuates," Hutton said. "You look across the league at every game, there's a ton of Wild West shootouts. We need to do a better job in certain areas just like every team needs to do a better job."

Hutton is 15-15-3 on the season with a 2.86 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. Saturday's win pushed Ullmark to 12-5-4, 2.97/.911. The biggest test of the homestand comes Sunday at 3 against Winnipeg, which is fighting Calgary, San Jose and Nashville for the top spot in the West.

Housley has an interesting choice to make in goal. Does he make it a rare back-to-back for a goalie by coming back with Ullmark, especially with the team looking for its first two-game winning streak since mid-December? Or does he return to Hutton, who posted a shootout win over the Jets in Winnipeg in November but it just 2-7-2 in his last 11 starts?

Housley wasn't tipping his hand Saturday. And ultimately it won't matter which goalie plays against Winnipeg, which is fifth in the league in goals, if everyone in front of the net doesn't get the job done.

"Every team goes through it. You get into a rut," Housley said. "Sometimes your offensive game is in order, and your defense is lacking. Sometimes, you're shutting teams down and not getting production. I think guys have taken ownership with it and addressed it. We know what we have to do. We have to be harder in front of the net, that's obvious. We've talked about it and now we've just got to execute."

The Wraparound: Sabres 3, Red Wings 1

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