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Special teams proves the difference in loss to Caps

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Entering their game against the Washington Capitals at KeyBank Center on Friday night, the two special teams units for the Buffalo Sabres sat on opposite ends of the success spectrum. Their power play ranked third in the NHL at 23 percent, while their penalty kill - a strength of the team earlier this season - had fallen to 29th at 75.6 percent.

Neither the power play nor the penalty kill found much success on Friday, however, resulting in their third loss to the Capitals since Nov. 25, this one by a score of 4-1. Washington scored on two of its three power plays while Buffalo didn't capitalize until its fifth power play, which came late in the third period.

Video: BUF Recap: Okposo nets lone goal in 4-1 loss to Caps

"We knew going into the game that was going to be a big factor, a big key in the game, special teams," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "Our power play had opportunities to get us back in the game and wasn't able to do that."

Video: BYLSMA: Postgame

The game remained scoreless into the second period, at which point both teams had gone unsuccessful on their first power plays. Washington took the lead on a goal by T.J. Oshie, who was absent the last two times these teams met due to injury, 6:33 into the second period and then gained the man-advantage when Dmitry Kulikov was called for hooking following a miscommunication by Buffalo in its own zone.

Only 12 seconds remained on the penalty when Jakub Vrana, a 20-year-old first-round pick from the 2014 draft, scored his first career goal. Vrana was the beneficiary of a strong rush into the offensive zone by Evgeny Kuznetsov, who squeezed by a Cody Franson check along the wall and drove down low to feed Vrana in front of the net.

Washington entered the game ranked 22nd in the League on the power play, but Franson said that number doesn't do justice to the amount of talent it features.

Video: FRANSON: Postgame

"They're tough to play against," Franson said. "It doesn't matter what numbers they have, they're arguably the best power play in the League I'd probably say. We had to find a way to do a job and unfortunately we didn't do that tonight."

When Vrana scored, it marked the third game in a row in which the Sabres allowed a power-play goal.  

"We have made some adjustments and some practicing of it he last couple days," Bylsma said. "I think we have become a little shell shocked these last few weeks, this month of December we're around 50 percent. We stepped over the boards today to be aggressive, to be a killing unit and I thought we did that the best we've done in a long time in the first kill and a half."

The Capitals gave the Sabres multiple chances to come back and tie the game. Washington took one penalty late in the second period and three more in the first 10:27 of the third. Kyle Okposo finally scored on a rebound on Buffalo's fifth power play of the night to make it a 2-1 game with 7:57 remaining.

Video: WSH@BUF: Okposo tips in loose puck past Grubauer

 "I thought we struggled on the power play most of the night," Okposo said. "It was pretty evident. They did a good job, they were taking everything away and really keeping us to the outside. You've got to give them credit, their PK was good, [we were] still able to pop one, you know just stay with it but we just didn't execute."

Video: OKPOSO: Postgame

Brian Gionta was called for interference 1:25 after Okposo scored, and John Carlson scored on a shot from the point with the Capitals on the power play to restore their two-goal lead. Marcus Johansson later scored into an empty net to cap the scoring with 1:12 remaining. 

Sabres goalie Robin Lehner ended his night having allowed three goals on 28 shots.

Video: WSH@BUF: Lehner robs Wilson on the doorstep in 1st

"I'm not going to comment on it," Gionta said when asked about the interference call against him. "I think it's a tough call."

Even in spite of the lopsided special teams, the Sabres still might have won the game had they capitalized on some of their grade-A offensive chances. Okposo and Jack Eichel both missed open nets while Rasmus Ristolainen and Zemgus Girgensons both drove shots off the post.

Okposo said afterward that he just thought the Sabres didn't have the same kind of third-period "jam" that they've had in recent comeback victories against New York and Edmonton.

"It's kind of the way it's been," Okposo said of the missed shots. "We had to make sure we kept it going, kept at it, and we did a decent job at times but at times we didn't come with that same energy and they had some shifts where there was some momentum. We just didn't do enough 5-on-5 to win that game."

Video: GIONTA: Postgame


Three players return

Josh Gorges, Dmitry Kulikov and Nicolas Deslauriers all returned to the lineup after missing varying amounts of games due to injury. Bylsma said that all three players made it through the game OK. Kulikov skated 18:23 of ice time, Gorges skated 16:13 and Deslauriers skated a team-low 5:48.

Bylsma also said that Derek Grant, who was scratched, missed the game due to illness.


Up next

The Sabres continue their homestand when they host the Los Angeles Kings at KeyBank Center on Tuesday night. Coverage begins with the TOPS Pregame Show at 6:30 p.m. on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7 p.m.

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