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Sabres host Oilers to open second half

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

The Buffalo Sabres will welcome the NHL's top-ranked power play into KeyBank Center for the second straight game on Thursday night. 

It was the Tampa Bay Lightning who held that title on Tuesday. It now belongs to the Edmonton Oilers, who improved to 30.2 percent with a 3-for-6 outing that night in their win over the New York Rangers. 
In a way, the Sabres and Oilers are opposites in terms of how they have generated offense. The Sabres have a plus-four goal differential at even strength but rank 22nd on the power play. The Oilers have been prolific with the extra man but are minus-22 at 5-on-5. 

"The 5-on-5 game being plus at this point halfway through the season is definitely something we're proud of," Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. "We've worked hard on that since training camp to establish a game that's consistent. We're still wandering in and out of the principles we need, but we know they're there and the guys are grabbing onto them and their criticizing or critiquing themselves now in the right way. 

"It's the special teams that need to join the level. We've definitely been minus here in specialty team games here quite often of late and it's cost us points. … The 5-on-5 game is something that there's constant improvement at and we need to continue here in the second half of the season every day looking for growth in the 5-on-5 game while growing our specialty teams."

Video: PREGAME: Krueger

The Sabres have gone 0-for-14 on the power play in their last five games. Though possession has been there for long stretches, Krueger has continued to emphasize the need for second-chance opportunities. 

"There's definitely O-zone control there and there's a confidence with the puck and it's that final piece of effective shots that's really something any team is working on," he said. "The PKs are so well pre-scouted nowadays that they kind of know what your tendencies are, so it's deception and surprise on power plays that actually bring success and second chances that bring success. 

"We need to get ourselves into those spaces a little bit more with some deception to our game. But of course, hitting the net is critical. We missed so many on our power play in each of the last two games where we had an opportunity to get points and into overtime. We didn't get the effective shots, so it's certainly something we're looking for today."


Scouting the Oilers

The Sabres earned a 3-2 victory in the previous meeting between these two teams, in Edmonton on Dec. 8. They held the league's two leading scorers without a point in forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, one of only five teams to do so since this season. 

"The important thing is not to just think about them," Krueger said. "They need their teammates and linemates to be successful and I think it's definitely our team game that gives us a chance. So, we need to reach for that. 

"They are as strong up the middle maybe as any team we've seen here with McDavid, Draisaitl, [Ryan Nugent-Hopkins], and Gaetan Haas. That's a really good group up the middle and maybe we'll see them together here and there together or on the power play, McDavid and Draisaitl, but I think it's more important to concentrate on our team game. I thought we had a good team game in Edmonton and that's what we're reaching for here today."

Mike Smith is expected to start in net for Edmonton. He's 7-9-2 with a .893 save percentage this season.


Lineup notes

The Sabres will warm up with 12 forwards and seven defensemen and reveal their lineup then. Here's how they lined up at the morning skate: 

68 Victor Olofsson - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
43 Conor Sheary - 90 Marcus Johansson - 13 Jimmy Vesey
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 22 Johan Larsson - 21 Kyle Okposo
67 Dalton Smith - 27 Curtis Lazar - 74 Rasmus Asplund / 71 Evan Rodrigues

19 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 62 Brandon Montour
6 Marco Scandella - 10 Henri Jokiharju
33 Colin Miller - 4 Zach Bogosian

Linus Ullmark will make his sixth straight start in net.  

Tune in 

Coverage on MSG begins at 6:30 p.m. You can also listen live on WGR 550. Puck drop is scheduled for 7. 

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