Most days when the Buffalo Sabres practice, the team is divided into yellow and blue sweaters. But rather than split up players by position like in years past, the significance of the colors this season is to indicate a player’s role on special teams. Those on the power play wear yellow; blue sweaters are for the penalty killers and the rest.
The reason they dress according to special teams placement is simple: The Sabres practice the power play almost every day.
“We try to practice hard, we try to work hard and our penalty killers have been working hard against us,” forward Tyler Ennis said. “You practice like you play and I think that’s what our mentality is and it’s helped. We’ve practiced it more this year than in the past and I think it shows.”
It certainly has shown, particularly over the course of Buffalo’s current three-game winning streak. The Sabres have scored a power-play goal in each of their past three games, going 3-for-6 over that stretch.
The success has propelled them to fourth in the NHL with a 25-percent conversion rate (13-for-52). Ryan O'Reilly is tied for eighth in the League with seven power-play points.
Buffalo will look to win its fourth straight when they host the San Jose Sharks on Saturday at First Niagara Center. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on MSG-B with Tops Sabres Gamenight with puck drop set for 7 p.m. The game can also be heard on WGR 550.
Recently, Buffalo’s power-play success has translated into confidence.
“I feel like every time we get a power play we think, ‘I can be the one who makes a difference in the game,’” O’Reilly said. “For myself, I feel confident going out there that we can generate something.”
To what do we credit their success? According to the players, it’s a combination of good coaching, developed chemistry and those daily battles in practice.
Forward Sam Reinhart, who has been a contributor to the power play all season long with his presence in front of the net, said that the penalty killers’ effort in practice makes for game-like situations.
All of those factors – combined with the depth of talent on the roster – have culminated into Buffalo having two power-play units that are a threat to score at any time.
“I think both units have been a part of it, which is good,” Reinhart said. “I think both units have been working well together. Even if one has it rough, we’ve been pretty good at keeping it to a minute each and that’s really helped getting everyone into the game.”
The numbers back his claim. Take the team’s current units, which have been consistent in recent weeks. One unit consists of O’Reilly, Ennis, Reinhart, Matt Moulson and Cody Franson. The other includes Jack Eichel, Jamie McGinn, Johan Larsson, Brian Gionta and Rasmus Ristolainen.
O’Reilly’s unit has combined to score seven goals; Eichel’s has scored six.
“We have two good units,” O’Reilly said. “They’re both producing at times for us, we’re keeping it simple, we’re thinking shot mentality and from that seams open up and we’re making plays on them.”
WHO’S IN NET?
Buffalo’s goaltending situation has become a carousel of sorts in recent games, but in a good way. After four-straight starts for Linus Ullmark, Chad Johnson filled in and won a game in Tampa on Tuesday. Then, Ullmark came back with a 36-save effort in a win against the Panthers on Thursday.
On Saturday, Johnson will get the nod.
“For any goalie, the more you can play the more you kind of get into a groove,” Johnson said. “It’s exciting to keep going – early on I was playing a lot and was in a groove. And again, now we’re a better team and we’re getting wins so it’s exciting to be a part of it.”
Johnson echoed a statement that Marcus Foligno made in the Sabres’ dressing room on Friday when he said that his and Ullmark’s jobs have been made easier by an increased effort to clear traffic in front of the net. Buffalo’s goaltenders are seeing shots better, which in turn has limited second-chance opportunities.
“From early on in the season, first five games, it was a big focus for our team and our defense – clearing the net front, boxing out early, getting into guys and letting our goalies see pucks,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “I do think we’re doing a better job at that. When the goalie’s seeing a shot and catching it, there’s not anyone in the shooting lane, you know our defense and guys down low are doing their job.”
Bylsma said that the rest of his lineup will be a game-time decision, but Buffalo has only six defensemen ready to play. Zach Bogosian participated in the morning skate but is not prepared to return to games just yet.
At forward, it remains to be seen whether Nicolas Deslauriers will return to the lineup after sitting as a healthy scratch against Florida. He was in his usual spot at left wing in line rushes on Friday morning, with Tim Schaller alternating reps at center with David Legwand.
Defenseman Mike Weber underwent surgery for a lower-body injury on Friday, Bylsma said. The timetable for his return is 2-6 weeks.
SPEAKING OF POWER PLAYS …
While the Sabres power play is thriving, they’ll face a team on Saturday that has struggled to do much of anything with the man advantage. The Sharks rank last in the league on the power play, scoring at an 11.1 percent clip.
Adding to the intrigue of the game is that both teams can pull their record over .500 with a win. It’s a win the Sabres have had their sights set on since going 3-7-0 to open the season.
“It’s nice to get here but we’re not satisfied or anything,” O’Reilly said of their 8-8-0 record. “We still expect more from ourselves and we expect more tonight. We need this win.”
Buffalo is currently riding an eight-game winning streak against San Jose, but new coaching staffs for both teams might change the dimensions of the matchup.
“You see a lot of tendencies that are similar in their players and their team. There are definitely some structure things that they do differently than before,” Bylsma said. “I had a book on the San Jose Sharks before. I’m not sure it’s totally applicable.”
Joe Pavelski and Joel Ward are tied with a team-high 14 points for the Sharks, who are playing without one of their top forwards in Logan Couture. Coming on the heels of a 3-2 win in Detroit on Friday, it’s possible that San Jose will rest starting goaltender Martin Jones.
Alex Stalock, Jones’ backup, is 1-3-0 with a 2.85 goals against average and .894 save percentage this season.
26 Matt Moulson – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 12 Brian Gionta
88 Jamie McGinn – 15 Jack Eichel – 63 Tyler Ennis
22 Johan Larsson – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 23 Sam Reinhart
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 17 David Legwand – 82 Marcus Foligno
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 3 Mark Pysyk
25 Carlo Colaiacovo – 46 Cody Franson
31 Chad Johnson
35 Linus Ullmark