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Sabres' leaders hope better practices can lead to better execution

by Chris Ryndak @ChrisRyndak /

During a stoppage of a drill early on in practice at KeyBank Center on Sunday, Buffalo Sabres associate coach Davis Payne hollered some choice words - including some expletives - at the players to hammer home a simple message. 

It's about execution. 

It's a point that head coach Phil Housley brought up in his postgame comments Saturday night after Buffalo's 6-3 loss to the New York Islanders in Brooklyn. After practice on Sunday, he reiterated the importance of forming good practice habits.

"It's just our attention to detail, No. 1. We went to New York and I think we understood where they were at as a team after losing 5-0. We knew they were going to come out strong," Housley said. "In saying that, I think we were ready. I think we were prepared. I think we just didn't execute the game plan. A lot of the times, it really wasn't the things that they did; it's really what we gave them. New York played a simple game."

For the players, the messages relayed by the coaching staff - and particularly in how Payne delivered his on Sunday - are being taken seriously.

"He means what he's saying and it's honest," forward Jason Pominville, a veteran of 907 NHL games, said. "Nothing about it is fake or pretend so I think it sends an even stronger message."

"It's getting back to the little details. That's what killed us yesterday," alternate captain Ryan O'Reilly said. "Just little things - not relaxing at certain times of the game. I thought we had a good, intense practice with everyone just going. Competing, moving our feet, having good sticks, being physical, going to the right spots. It's something we've got to carry over into tomorrow."

Buffalo fell behind early and then surrendered a pair of shorthanded goals in the second period to go down 3-0. The Islanders held a four-goal lead when Evander Kane potted two shorthanded goals of his own, but the Sabres were outscored 2-1 in the third and saw their record fall to 0-1-1.  

"In the last game, we kind of got back to old habits, which isn't good," O'Reilly said. "We had a good talk this morning, a good review of last game. We're throwing it out. It's still early in the season and there's no need to panic. To a man, everyone knows we need to do things a little differently. And that's all right. We're not worried in here, it's just preparing for tomorrow's game."

The Buffalo's top power-play unit has now given up three shorthanded goals this season. It speaks to some of the issues that they're looking to correct with each and every drill in practice.

"We've just got to make sure we're sharp on the power play," alternate captain Kyle Okposo said. "We've got to make sure we come with a mentality that we're going to go outwork them and we're going to go score every time we get on the ice. We can't be second guessing ourselves. 

"…There were things in that game last night that had nothing to do with the system or anything like that. It was just our decision making as a team, and our lack of battle and their elevated battle. I thought they did a really good job at making decisions through the neutral zone and we just didn't do that."

Buffalo hosts New Jersey tomorrow afternoon. It's a 3 p.m. faceoff from KeyBank Center, which starts with a Kids Day Party in the Plaza presented by Perry's Ice Cream at 1 p.m. The GMC Game Night pregame show kicks off at 2:30 p.m. on MSG if you aren't able to make it to the rink. 

The Sabres hope they can continue to build on the foundation that the coaching staff is laying down for them. Housley wants to coach an up-tempo and aggressive team, but he's also looking for that proper execution each and every shift.

"I'm not going to take any creativity away from our players. They're going to be allowed to make plays, but we've got to make the right plays," he said. "We've got to realize numbers -if they're in our favor or if they're not in our favor - where we've got to make a smart decision."

Sunday's practice

9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 29 Jason Pominville
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 25 Seth Griffith
67 Benoit Pouliot - 23 Sam Reinhart - 21 Kyle Okposo
22 Johan Larsson - 10 Jacob Josefson - 26 Matt Moulson - 17 Jordan Nolan

82 Nathan Beaulieu - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen 
19 Jake McCabe - 93 Victor Antipin 
6 Marco Scandella - 5 Matt Tennyson
4 Josh Gorges

40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson 

A new look at practice saw Ryan O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart trade their set of wings. 

"I just thought we needed to change it up a little bit. Right now, I don't have the lines - what we're going to go with tomorrow," Housley said. "Certainly there are going to be changes if we don't feel we're getting the proper execution." 

Zach Bogosian skated on his own before practice and it's unlikely that he'll be available for Monday's game due to a lower-body injury. He's making good progress according to Housley and is still considered day-to-day.

As far as a starting goaltender for the game against the Devils, Housley has yet to name one. Lehner started last night and was pulled 7 minutes into the second period after giving up the goal that made it 4-0. He made 12 saves on 16 shots. 

Johnson stopped 15 of 16 shots in 31:01 of action. 

"I thought Robin made some big saves early, especially at the end of the first period, it could've been 3-0," Housley said. "It wasn't so much what he did wrong. It was more about what our team was doing at the time and then we needed to make a change."

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