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Sabres’ offense stuck in traffic

Buffalo 0 for 12 on the power play

By Brendan Hall
Globe Correspondent / April 20, 2010

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The Sabres’ effort in this opening-round playoff series against the Bruins hasn’t been terrible.

With Vezina Trophy finalist Ryan Miller in net, they get timely saves.

And, as evidenced by 39 hits and a mini melee in the closing minutes of the third period last night, they can turn up physically when pressed.

But on offense, they haven’t exactly been phenomenal.

With both teams short on finishers and long on shut-down blue liners, net-front presence is at a premium. For Buffalo, being without leading goal-scorer Thomas Vanek (left leg) has magnified the struggles.

That’s especially true on the power play, where the Sabres are now 0 for 12 in the series after going 0 for 3 in last night’s 2-1 loss to the Bruins at TD Garden to go down, 2 games to 1, in the series.

“I don’t think it’s so much what they’re doing as much as it is what we’re not doing,’’ said Paul Gaustad. “We’re not doing what we did all year, we’re not executing the way we should.’’

Which isn’t to say the unit was a complete mess. The Sabres, who finished in the middle of the pack in the NHL for power play percentage in the regular season, maintained pressure in the Boston zone thanks to solid puck-moving from blue liners Henrik Tallinder and Calder Trophy favorite Tyler Myers. But getting bodies in front of the net is becoming a chore as the series progresses.

“When you’re playing a good goaltender in a good system, you need to get traffic,’’ said defenseman Craig Rivet. “If you don’t have traffic, if you don’t have pucks going to the net, you’re going to have a really, really tough time scoring goals. I think that we can do better in some areas that help us have success.’’

The task sounds deceivingly simple — rush the net and create havoc — yet the Bruins’ third-ranked penalty kill has made things increasingly difficult. Forward Mike Grier said he thought the Sabres’ presence was adequate, but that it was the Bruins defenders setting up so quickly that made things turbulent.

“They’re doing a good job down ice and on entries, that we haven’t really had too many chances in the zone to set up and move the puck around,’’ Grier said.

Grier had one of Buffalo’s few offensive flashes on the night, taking Raffi Torres’s skip pass off the wall into the zone and beating Tuukka Rask with a snapper over his left shoulder from the left circle. That opened the scoring, at 6:57 of the first, but for the second straight game the Sabres failed to hold their initial lead.

Bruins defenders such as Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk kept their heads on a swivel, cutting off backdoor chances against Rask. Up top in the zone, along the half-boards, forwards such as Dan Paille provided relentless puck-side pressure, not allowing too many clean passes across the ice.

“Yeah, our guys have confidence when it comes to the penalty kill,’’ Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “Our guys are going hard, and they’re out there for maybe 20 seconds and they’re off. Sometimes we get a chance to get through two rotations of three pairs, and that goes to show you how disciplined they are at doing their job and how hard they work at it.’’

Add in the physical bumps the Sabres took, and it was a rough night.

Boychuk’s second-period crushing hit of Matt Ellis in open ice was a game-changer, sidelining Ellis for several minutes (“Matt’s fine,’’ Sabres coach Lindy Ruff deadpanned in his usual blunt demeanor). Mark Recchi’s dumping of Tim Kennedy in the corner to set up the winner with seven minutes left was deadly.

Surely, it was a night the Sabres want to soon forget.

“It’s ancient history now,’’ Ruff said.

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