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Sabres watch video, work in practice to clean up mistakes ahead of road trip

Rasmus Ristolainen pinned a teammate along the left-wing boards and successfully pried the puck away, earning raucous stick taps from the Buffalo Sabres players and coaches standing along the blue line.

The fast and physical defensive-zone drill capped their 45-minute practice Saturday in Harborcenter and was run in response to their 6-2 loss to the New York Rangers, a performance coach Phil Housley called "soft."

That harsh evaluation was shared with players again during a pre-practice video session and all involved are aware that time is of the essence. The Sabres have often allowed one bad defensive game to snowball into consistently poor hockey, which cannot happen with only 25 regular-season games remaining.

"We’re in, obviously, a stretch where every game is in important," center Evan Rodrigues said. "But at the end of the day, you can’t dwell on a game like yesterday, because it’s not going to do anything for you. You have to learn from it, take a step forward from it, build off of it, just get ready for the next game. I think when you get a little too emotional and you worry too much about a bad game, I think that’s when you start to get down on yourself, confidence kind of goes out the window and that’s when things start to snowball."

The Sabres (28-22-7) appeared disheartened in the aftermath of Friday's loss, despite being four points back of the second-wild card spot. They earned only seven of 14 possible points during a seven-game homestand, which began with a 7-3 loss against Chicago.

Buffalo allowed five goals over three games prior to Friday, including a 3-1 win over the first-place New York Islanders. Yet, the Sabres seemed disinterested against the Rangers and were stuck in their own zone for much of the night.

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The game symbolized two steps back for a team that seemed to have finally embraced Housley's plea for better defensive play. The postgame message was not unfamiliar to the Sabres. They knew precisely what went wrong, but the team has failed to produce any semblance of consistency.

One game of outworking an opponent is typically followed by the careless defensive mishaps that have resulted in a negative-13 goal differential.

In Housley's mind, the Sabres are at their best when they are limiting an opponent in the defensive zone, quickly reloading to begin a breakout and cycling the puck with physical forechecking. He also wants shots on net with traffic in front of the goalie.

It's not a unique recipe.

"We addressed it today," Housley said. "We had a good practice, spirits were up. It’s a time to reboot, refocus and get ready. We understand when we play the way we can play and have our details in order, we’re a very good hockey team. When we’re not, we seem to get results that we get last game."

Few teams can survive the high-wire act that has become synonymous with the Sabres this season. Though they allowed too many high-danger scoring chances during their 10-game winning streak, they gave up four or more goals only twice during that span.

Contrastly, Buffalo has given up four or more goals in nine of their last 14 games.

"Last night we were too easy to play against," Jason Pominville admitted. "Didn’t close quick enough in the D zone. Gave them too much time. When we’re on our game we’re difficult to play against. We defend hard, we limit their Grade-A scoring chances and we’re able to play in the O zone because of it. We just have to keep harping on it."

Players have struggled to explain why the Sabres continue to revert back to bad habits. Some have blamed inexperience -- much of the roster is unfamiliar with playing meaningful hockey in February -- while others have downplayed the team's defensive struggles at times.

The Sabres were outscored 28-22 during the homestand and allowed 17 goals over the first three games. Turnovers weren't the only problem, either. They were outmuscled again Friday night. Lawrence Pilut struggled to pry a puck away from Pavel Buchnevich on the Rangers' third goal, and no one could clear traffic from in front of the net on Jesper Fast's goal earlier in the second period.

Buffalo has lacked attention to detail, which has led to disjointed play in all three zones. That fact was pointed out during another uncomfortable video session with coaches Saturday morning.

"The most important thing is when we watched video today is guys are taking full advantage of that and learning from it," Conor Sheary said. "It’s a little bit of a slap in the face when you’re getting called out in video [sessions], but it’s for all the right reasons. If guys can learn from that and see other guys’ mistakes and not make the same ones again that will be important."

Six of the Sabres' next eight games are on the road, beginning with the three-game road trip to New Jersey, Florida and Tampa Bay. The Devils (22-28-8) lost to Buffalo, 5-1, in KeyBank Center Jan. 8, however, the Sabres have struggled against the Panthers and Lightning.

One ugly stretch could put Buffalo out of the playoff chase for good, but the Sabres' veterans expressed confidence in their ability to recover.

"You have to earn it every night, especially this time of year," Pominville said. "You’re battling against teams. Everyone is fighting for positioning for certain reasons as well. … I feel like we have the group to rebound because we’ve done it before."

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