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Penalty killing problems haunting Sabres to historic levels

LAS VEGAS – The Buffalo Sabres knew their penalty killing has been, well, killing them all season. But even they were surprised to hear Thursday it's been failing at historic levels.

Heading into Friday night's game against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Sabres are last in the NHL in overall penalty kill percentage (74.0) and road percentage (67.8). The overall mark, in fact, would be the lowest in franchise history for an entire season if it holds up.

The Sabres gave up two more goals on the PK on three opportunities in Wednesday's 3-2 loss in Colorado. It was the 11th time this season the Sabres have given up two or more power-play goals in a game. Not surprisingly, Buffalo is just 1-8-2 in those games.

"It's tough there. Really tough because I take a lot of pride in it," defenseman Jake McCabe said after practice in T-Mobile Arena. "Over the years it's become a staple of my game so when I see the numbers slip, I take it hard for sure. I'm a PK guy and I see it's at the bottom of the league, it's not good. Especially on a night your power play doesn't score and you lose the special teams battle, you lose games. Not good."

The Sabres have given up 45 power-play goals this season and the current record for their worst penalty kill is 75.1% during the 2014-15 tank season. The 67.8% figure on the road is far ahead of the previous mark of futility of 73.1% set in '14-15.

Both figures are last in the NHL this season and Buffalo's overall mark is the third-lowest since the 2005 lockout, surpassed only by Chicago's 72.7% mark last year and the New York Islanders' 73.2% mark in 2017-18. Friday's task will be a difficult one as the Golden Knights are third in the NHL at home at 26.6% and 11th overall (21.4 %).

"Its frustrating obviously because it's something you want to take pride in, especially as a goaltender," said Carter Hutton.

"It's fair to say we find that unacceptable," said coach Ralph Krueger. "It's a combination of the structure, the personnel, everything combined, but a lot has to do with confidence. What that PK needs so badly is a run of sorts, something where you can grab on to three or four games with no goals against."

The frustration stems from the fact there's no common thread. Sometimes it's goaltending. Sometimes it's coverage issues. Sometimes it's simply not clearing the puck fast enough.

"We're not doing much different. We're there playing it well and they didn't have too many chances," defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said of the Avalanche. "They kept it simple and got the pressure to the net and got some bounces."

The first goal Wednesday saw Nathan MacKinnon work the puck around Ristolainen and get it down low to J.T. Compher, who used a back pass to feed Gabriel Landeskog.

"It went to the back door guy and he taps it in," Ristolainen said. "They keep it simple. We just have to stay with it."

"I'm in a tough spot in front of the net as I thought he tries to shoot the puck and it goes far side," McCabe said. "I'm on the weak side and they got one more guy than us so they'll get loose pucks."

Martin Kaut gave the Avs a 2-1 lead in the second period with the other power-play goal, which was his first goal in the NHL. it came as he took a big rebound off Hutton's pad that Henrik Jokiharju and Johan Larsson couldn't corral.

"The way we try to communicate it is that initial shots are mine," Hutton said. "The first goal (Compher) tries to cut to the net and doesn't try to pass the puck, he loses it and it goes right to (Landeskog). You live with it. The other one a rolling screen in front and just a rebound. Usually rebounds don't end up in the back of your net because there's so much traffic there."

Sabres players insist there's not a whole lot different schematically under Krueger than last year, when the club was at 80.9 percent and 12th in the NHL under Phil Housley. Assistant coach Steve Smith, who is a key point man for the power play, was retained from last year's staff so there isn't much difference in the coaching.

Goaltending appears to be a key factor. While on the penalty kill, Linus Ullmark has a save percentage of just .836 and Hutton is at .835. They're 49th and 50th out of the 56 NHL goalies who have played at least 20 games this season.

"It's truly been a handful of different scenarios," Krueger said. "Yesterday was those second chances. Getting puck-focused on the PK, which you can't do. You have to know where the danger lies and the puck belongs to 'Hutts'. You need your goalies to make the first save. Every power play in this league is going to generate shots. It's what happens in the chaos. That's where we have to get better."

The Sabres have found success at home, where they're killing at an 80.8% clip that's more than 13% higher than their road mark.

"I really think it's a confidence thing, especially on the road," Krueger said. "It's a road psychology situation. We're working hard at it. Maybe we're going to use a little more personnel and give it more of a bigger team concept than we have been. We are going to make some strategic changes that I am not going to tell you about now but I can tell you we're working on it."

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