It’s easy to imagine Ryan Miller closing his eyes Monday during the flight to Ottawa and being startled awake by visions of pucks flying at his head.
Miller has faced the most shots of any NHL goaltender, a number that grew substantially during the Buffalo Sabres’ last two games. He was tested 81 times over the weekend, bringing the total to 368 in 11 games.
“We’re spending too much time in our own zone,” Sabres defenseman Robyn Regehr said. “Defensively, we have to tighten things up there. We can’t keep allowing 35-plus shots a game here. There’s too many chances against.”
The Sabres visit the Senators tonight in Scotiabank Place as the league’s most shell-shocked team. They allow 34.1 shots per game, tied with Carolina for worst in the NHL entering Monday’s schedule. Buffalo ranks 29th in goals allowed at 3.54 per game, ahead of only the 3.64 given up by Florida.
They’ve been outshot in 10 of 13 outings, and their points percentage of .300 from a 3-7 record in those games ranks 22nd in the league.
“You’re not going to win games if you don’t play well defensively,” captain Jason Pominville said. “It doesn’t matter how many goals you score or how many chances you create, it’s about not giving up opportunities first. It’s going to give the team a better chance to win. It’s going to give your teammates a better chance to succeed.”
It’s nothing new for the Sabres to allow a lot of shots. They ranked 27th last season at 31.4 per game and were outshot 60 percent of the time (49 of 82). In the seven-year era between lockouts, they ranked in the top half of shots allowed just once (12th in 2007-08) and were 20th or worse five times.
The problem this year is they’re not answering the attempts. They have a shot differential of minus-5 per game, trailing only Edmonton (minus-7.8), Nashville (minus-7.4) and Dallas (minus-7.1).
“Shots on goal isn’t always a translation,” Miller said. “I can stand in there and play some hockey, too. We’ve just got to translate it into getting the puck back and getting some more opportunities and sharing the balance of the opportunities with that other team.
“Eventually, we’ll start taking that over. That’s what I would hope our goal is here.”
Playing without the puck is a team-wide problem. Years ago, Sabres goalie coach Jim Corsi began tracking players’ shot differential, totaling the goals, saves, missed and blocked shots at both ends when a player is on the ice. A positive number means the opponent’s goalie is being tested, while a negative rating means that player’s netminder is busier.
Only four of the 23 skaters who have played for Buffalo have a positive “Corsi rating,” according to statistical website BehindTheNet.ca: Christian Ehrhoff, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Thomas Vanek.
“We’re spending way too much time in our zone,” Pominville said. “We’re running around. We spend too much time without the puck.”
Miller says the Sabres are caught in a quandary. They can clog up the middle of their zone to block shots, thereby cutting down the number of pucks he faces. By playing in the center, however, they’re less likely to track down caroms and passes that go toward the boards.
“What it does is it keeps us chasing the puck around because we have to come inside to block,” Miller said.
“They have guys to retrieve. That’s kind of what we’ve seen. The important thing for us is just to get control of the puck, get it in deep, make them come all the way down. That’s why you can’t play just in your D-zone.
“That’s what the good teams do. They’re going to get the puck back and make you chase around a little bit, and they’re going to outchance you a little bit. At the end of the night, it’s going to translate into you’re not going to have those same chances.”
Although the Sabres lost, 4-3, in Ottawa last Tuesday, they’re facing a team that continues to have offensive woes. That was the only Senators win in their past five games. They’ve totaled just three goals in the four losses and have been shut out twice.
The Senators spent Monday working on getting closer to the net. The Sabres, who will play their 14th game in 24 days, elected to skip practice.
Miller certainly didn’t need to see any more pucks.
“We just have to support each other,” he said. “We’ll find the balance between being a little bit too conservative and collapsing a lot.”
NHL’s worst shot differentials per game:
1. Edmonton -7.8
2. Nashville -7.4
3. Dallas -7.1
4. Buffalo -5.0