TAMPA, Fla. — The Buffalo Sabres still have the NHL’s worst power play, but numbers that were just about historically bad early in the season won’t easily be overcome. So they have to focus on small progress.
And the Sabres definitely have some of that going.
Heading into tonight’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Sabres have scored with the man-advantage in four straight games. Another power-play goal tonight will make it five straight for the first time since Nov. 13-21, 2009.
“It’s definitely better. That’s what we need going forward,” defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said Monday after practice in the Tampa Bay Times Forum. “We needed the ‘PP’ to step up and get us some goals and we’ve had a pretty good run. We just have to stick with it.
“We felt like we were going in the right direction. We got the puck more to the net and a key thing is we got it back for some second opportunities. It seemed like it was a matter of time for a few pucks to fall for us and that’s what’s happened.”
The power play is at a 12.9 percent clip for the season but has gone 4 for 15 in the last four games. In the previous 21 games, Buffalo was 5 for 76, and First Niagara Center fans were in near revolt during some situations as the Sabres failed to establish any presence in the offensive zone.
“We weren’t creating enough momentum for us and instead coming out of it with no momentum and boobirds and all that kind of stuff,” said Steve Ott, whose power-play goal in overtime provided a win last Tuesday in Montreal. “It takes a big toll on your overall game. If we’re generating chances and momentum, goals will come.”
That momentum has been happening in recent games, thanks to better entries into the zone and better work to keep control of the puck down low.
“It’s been huge, night and day,” said Jason Pominville. “You’re not going to score on all your power plays but if you generate good things, zone time and shots, it does carry over. The same for a big penalty kill. It’s a game of momentum and when you get it on your side, a lot of good things can happen.”
The Sabres are 7-4-2 this season in games in which they score a power-play goal. That leaves them 6-11-2 in games they’re blanked. They have 11 one-goal losses and are just 4 for 32 in those games.
“You have a good power play, it can win you games or at least keep you in there,” said Thomas Vanek. “Look at how many games we lost by one goal and how many power-play chances we’ve had in that span. We could have won I bet half of them with just a decent power play. It’s a key. It reflects your game as a whole.”
Ehrhoff’s booming slap shot from the point of the power play has been a key element this season, pro and con. He’s often fired wide – or drilled a teammate – but now he’s getting more of his shots on the net. He’s even taking some velocity off at times to give himself a higher percentage chance.
Ehrhoff fired a boomer past Toronto’s James Reimer for a goal in Thursday’s shootout victory and snapped a quick wrister that Vanek tipped home in Saturday’s 2-1 win in Montreal.
“There’s different opportunities that call for different types of shots,” Ehrhoff said. “Sometimes you see Thomas in front and he’s not covered you try to get a quick wrister in there. Other times like on the Toronto goal when I had a lot of time and a chance to tee it up, that’s when you really shoot the puck.”
“There’s a right time to use a heavy shot and a right time for him to take some off like he did with ‘Van’ because we’ve got one of the best net-front guys in the NHL there,” Ott said. “There’s times for everything. He’s been solid for us of late on the power play and it’s made a huge difference.”
Vanek continues to lead the Sabres with seven power-play goals and many have come on tips from Ehrhoff. Vanek, of course, is still nursing a sore hip after getting drilled by Ehrhoff last Tuesday.
“Sometimes it’s not about the heavy shot,” Vanek said. “His goal is the time and place. You get the green light in the middle of the ice. He’s getting better at taking some off or shooting even a little wide for a tip.”