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LARSSON'S CONFIDENCE ON OFFENSE GROWS WITH RECENT GOALS

by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres

With three games at home in the past week, Johan Larsson has had his father and a couple of friends in town from Sweden since last Sunday. They sat and watched Sunday as Larsson participated in one last optional practice at First Niagara Center before departing for Toronto, where the Buffalo Sabres will play on Monday night.

Larsson picked a good week to have his family in town. He's scored twice during the homestand, once in a win over Calgary on Thursday and again on the power play against Minnesota on Saturday. His father has come to see him in Buffalo before, but these have been the first two times he's seen him score.

The 23-year-old center has five goals this season, but only these last two have been at home and he's scored four times since the beginning February.

He'd had his fair share of chances before, but – with the exception of a game-winner in Detroit on Dec. 14 – those chances always seemed to either miss the net or deflect off of a defender. It's something he's worked on, and he continued that work on Sunday.

"It's just going in for me now, I'm kind of a little more confident," Larsson said. "I've been trying to work on it every day in practice, try to score a lot of goals and think about it. Trying to hit the net, hit the right spots, kind of that stuff."

Larsson's low scoring numbers prior to the last month weren't a major concern given the specific role he and linemates Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta have played for the team. They've been a "shutdown line" for Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, matching up defensively against other teams' top players.

"He's done a real good job in that spot and I kind of think that's where his role is on the team," Bylsma said. "I think that's a very good spot for him to be in and one I think he's showing he can be in and be effective."

"… The fact that that he's picked up a couple goals lately is just a benefactor of him being in the right spot at the right time. I think he can add in that regard, but really [he's been] more a checking, defensive, hard-to-play-against guy."

Being able to score goals while also managing those defensive responsibilities, Larsson said, has been a learning process both in tactics and in patience. If you're defending a line starring Zach Parise, as he was against Minnesota, for example, you know you're going to be spending time in your own zone.

The key, Larsson said, is respecting the talent of the players he's facing and keeping his own frustration level to a minimum when those situations do occur.

"First of all you want to try and shut them down so they don’t score, but I mean you've got to [not] get frustrated with yourself, they're going to be in your zone and play and they're good players so you're going to have to respect that," Larsson said.

"At the same time, you've got to play down there and make them defend. I think that's the most important thing … Get them a little bit frustrated about their game and then maybe you can score a goal or two."


POWER-PLAY PROGRESS
Bylsma said his team was able to breathe a "sigh of relief" after Jack Eichel scored a power-play goal to snap a four-game goalless drought on Thursday. Cal O'Reilly, who assisted on Eichel's power-play goal in the next game against Minnesota, said that ending that drought against the Flames carried over into the Wild game.

"It gives us confidence," he said. "It gives the team confidence when we're executing on the power play and we're getting chances and they start going in, it definitely can feed into the next game."

After a 1-for-8 game against the Flames, the Sabres got goals from Larsson and Eichel on their only two power play of the night against the Wild, both on a double-minor penalty called in the second period.

"We've gone through some power plays in the last eight games and opportunities to get goals, win hockey games, and we've missed those opportunities. It's been a source of frustration," Bylsma said.

"Last game; it was a critical time in the game for us. We had to step over the boards and execute and I thought we did a great job of that with both units … executing, executing with purpose and the result is two big goals for us in yesterday's game."


UP NEXT
The Sabres will play the first of three games in March against the rival Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night at Air Canada Centre. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.

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