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The Sabres wanted to be tough. They’re learning the hard way that lack of discipline does not equal toughness.

Buffalo carries a four-game winless streak into tonight’s home game against the New York Rangers. The Sabres’ propensity for penalties started the 0-2-2 slide and was a major factor in three of the four setbacks.

“It’s losing us games,” defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said Monday in First Niagara Center.

The Sabres had won three in a row and held a third-period lead over the Rangers on Feb. 3 when they started thinking inside the box. Andrej Sekera departed for hooking and Patrick Kaleta followed with a major penalty and five-game suspension for boarding New York’s Brad Richards. New York scored twice on the power play and earned a 3-2 shootout victory.

Buffalo had New Jersey in a 2-0 hole with 7:30 to play Thursday when the referees whistled Ehrhoff for hooking. The Devils scored on the power play and rode the momentum to a 3-2 shootout win.

Philadelphia scored two power-play goals Sunday, including one just 4:31 in, en route to a 3-2 victory.

“With the penalties being called the way they are, it’s a difference-maker,” Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek said. “Some are questionable, but at the end of the day, penalties are penalties. We’re not very good at that right now. We’re taking too many.”

The stats back up Vanek:

• The Sabres have taken 127 minor penalties, the second most in the NHL behind the Flyers’ 128.

• Buffalo averages 15.3 penalty minutes per game, the league’s third-highest total.

• The Sabres have the second-most misconducts (five) and are tied for seventh in majors (16).

“There’s obviously something going on there,” said defenseman Tyler Myers, whose 10 minors rank second on the team behind Steve Ott’s 11. “We’re taking too many penalties regardless if they’re deserved or not. You just have to work that much harder to get yourself in a position you need to be to make a solid defensive play instead of maybe working your stick a little much and reaching. It just comes down to battle.”

The Sabres (9-14-3) would be in better shape if they could kill the infractions. They’ve allowed 23 power-play goals, tied for the most in the league with Washington and Florida. The penalty-kill unit ranks 19th at 81.7 percent.

“We’ve got to be better,” said Ehrhoff, who is tied with Vanek for third on the Sabres with nine minors. “Some of those penalties have definitely been undisciplined, and we can’t have those. I can’t control what’s being called against us or for us. We just have to live with it and do the best on our part that we don’t give the refs an opportunity to call penalties on us.”

Staying out of the box would be a good idea against the Rangers. Although New York’s power play ranks just 23rd at 15.8 percent, it has connected in five of the last six games and is firing at 31.6 percent during the run.

More enviable than the Rangers’ power play is their eighth-place spot in the standings. They hold the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference and are seven points ahead of the Sabres with two fewer games played.

“We’re not happy with 14th out of 15 places,” Ott said. “It’s atrocious. We know that.”

With only 22 games left, they’re running out of time to do anything about it.

“With the amount of games left, we know we have to win most of them to even have a chance for the eight spot,” Vanek said. “We should be in the playoffs without a doubt, and we’re not. We’re on the outside looking in again. I don’t think we’re too far off, but we’ve said that before.

“Unless we fix our special teams here soon, it’s going to be a long last seven weeks.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com