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Power-play failures loom large in Sabres' overtime loss to Leafs

TORONTO -- Rasmus Ristolainen had scored his first career goal against his bitter rival and led a Buffalo Sabres defense corps that prevented the Toronto Maple Leafs from scoring a goal at 5 on 5.

Ristolainen, however, had no interest in discussing what he or his teammates did well Saturday night in Scotiabank Arena.

"Personally, I just want to win," Ristolainen lamented following a 2-1 overtime loss. "It doesn’t matter how it comes. We need wins."

The results could change if coach Ralph Krueger fixes the Sabres' broken power play, which is an abysmal 1-for-37 over its last 13 games. Buffalo had zero shots on goal in its two opportunities against the Leafs. Jack Eichel and company could barely cycle the puck in the offensive zone on the man advantage.

That made the difference during a game in which Carter Hutton delivered 41 saves, the Sabres' defense prevented the dangerous scoring chances that doomed them against the Leafs last season and the Eichel-led top line had 16 shot attempts.

"For sure the power play is just not functioning at the moment and we have to stick with it, but there are so many good things happening in and around the game," Krueger said. "That is truly one of the sore spots that we’d have after a game like this. They get one, we don’t. I think it’s the difference in the end, but we have to continue to work on elements of the game we don’t like and that’s one of them."

The Sabres' power play ranked second in the National Hockey League during their 20-point October. However, they converted at a league-worst 2.7 percent while accumulating nine points in 14 November games.

The top unit, led by Eichel, seemed to be gaining momentum during its three-game road trip to Boston, Florida and Tampa Bay, and broke out of a slump when Ristolainen scored during a 3-2 loss to the Bruins on Nov. 21.

However, their play has deteriorated since Rasmus Dahlin suffered a concussion during the second period of a 5-2 loss at Tampa Bay last Monday. That forced Krueger to experiment with different personnel.

Ristolainen replaced Dahlin as the quarterback on the top power play and Marcus Johansson moved to the top unit when he returned from an upper-body injury Wednesday against Calgary. Victor Olofsson, who has scored six of his 10 goals on the power play, is no longer positioned in the right-wing circle.

Jeff Skinner has also been bumped down to the second unit. The Sabres had trouble entering the offensive zone when they received their first power play with 1:53 remaining in the first period.

"I felt like maybe that’s the part today we weren’t quite connected," Johansson said. "We need to win more pucks. We had some looks, but we have to get the puck back and get set up again and go back after it. I felt like we had that one chance and we had to go back and get it. That makes it hard. We just put this group together. We have to work on it a little bit and it will get better."

The Sabres seemed to lose momentum when their first chance resulted in zero shots on goal, and the Maple Leafs (13-11-4) took advantage with Johansson in the penalty box for slashing in the second period.

William Nylander knifed through the right-wing circle and went uncovered through the slot before lifting a backhanded shot over Hutton's shoulder for a 1-0 lead with 5:30 remaining. The Sabres' penalty kill had went 6-for-6 over its previous two games after allowing a goal in nine straight.

The Sabres (12-10-5) salvaged their November with points in four of five games, including a 6-4 win over Toronto in KeyBank Center on Friday night. However, effective special teams over the past month could have helped them trim their 12-point deficit behind the first-place Boston Bruins.

Entering Saturday, the Sabres ranked 19th with 26 goals at 5 on 5 since Nov. 1. That's more than the Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning, among others.

"I think we had some good looks," Ristolainen said of the power play. "Maybe we just need to get more simple and shoot the puck more."

The Sabres received their second opportunity at 11:32 into the second period when Johan Larsson was slashed by John Tavares in the offensive zone. The myriad of errors continued. Olofsson turned the puck over, Colin Miller had trouble handling a pass at the blue line and Brandon Montour was called for offside.

The power play's problems began Oct. 16, when the Sabres went 1-for-7 during a 5-2 loss at Anaheim. The Ducks pressured the puck to prevent Eichel and Olofsson from setting up in their respective spots. That forced Dahlin to make quick decisions and resulted in misfired passes.

Other opponents have used a similar strategy and have increased the pressure with a focus on stopping Eichel and Olofsson.

"We find there are scoring chances there and there is opportunity there," Krueger said Saturday morning. "The momentum has been extremely negative for the power play and as with other components when they’re not working, we stay on the topic. We’re looking at video, we’re looking at changing personnel here and there. I think with Dahlin out it’s definitely changed the PP look and we need to adapt to that."

Despite the power play generating no momentum, the Sabres tied the score with 13:02 remaining in the third period on Ristolainen's drive to the net. The defenseman, like Nylander, cut through the right-wing circle before finishing with a far-side backhand shot.

The Sabres were the better team for much of the third period. Sam Reinhart hit the post for a second time, and Marco Scandella twice kept the puck from crossing the goal line. Olofsson then had two scoring chances from the slot during overtime.

However, Tavares gave the Leafs a win with his wrist shot with 3:15 remaining. The Sabres found some solace in the fact they have improved their 5 on 5 game, particularly on defense, over the past week, but they know effective special teams could be the missing piece.

"It definitely gets in your head a little bit, but you can’t dwell on it," Johansson said. "You have to go out and execute it."

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