By Bill Hoppe
Take the NHL’s No. 9 power play in 2010-11, and add Christian Ehrhoff, an elite point presence who possesses a lethal shot, and Brad Boyes, a forward proficient at pulling the trigger down low.
What do the Sabres have?
One of the league’s worst power plays.
Entering this afternoon’s tilt against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the First Niagara Center, the Sabres are four of the last 50 in 20 games since Jan. 3. That’s eight percent. They scored four power-play goals in one game on Nov. 8.
For the season, the Sabres rank 20th on the man advantage at 16.2 percent (31 of 192). They operated at 19.4 percent last season.
Of course, Ehrhoff and Boyes, who have three combined power-play goals, shouldn’t shoulder more than a fraction of the blame. It’s been a team failure.
But it was reasonable to expect a team usually strong on the power play – the Sabres finished No. 7 three years ago – would be good again, especially with two proven assets joining the mix.
The Sabres should rank among the league leaders, right?
“Absolutely we should,” Sabres winger Drew Stafford said Saturday inside the FNC. “We have the personnel. We have the talent. We have had success this year. But it just hasn’t been consistent enough.”
What’s gone wrong? Inevitably, that query leads to technical answers.
“It’s a hard question to answer,” Stafford said. “There’s numerous things you could look at – execution with the puck, net presence ... the breakout.”
The Sabres started the season well , operating at a 20.3 percent clip as late as Thanksgiving.
“We were moving the puck around a little quicker, getting pucks through,” Stafford said. “We had great net presence. Our breakouts were solid. Basically, that’s the key to it. I think the most important thing is not letting the penalty killers outwork you. It starts there.”
Recently, the power play’s been killing the Sabres. They’re zero of the last 12, one of the 27 and two of 32.
In Thursday’s awful 7-2 loss in Philadelphia, a game in which the power play went zero of six, Stafford took a too-many-men penalty during a man advantage. The Flyers scored the go-ahead goal just over a minute later.
In Friday’s 4-3 shootout loss to Montreal, the Sabres botched their third and final chance to close overtime.
“We were going pretty good (earlier),” said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who’s been tinkering with his units. “The stretch in there when we had some key personnel (missing), that hurt us. But now the personnel’s back. ... When you’re struggling on it, the tendency is to get a little quick. We haven’t converted. I think we got to keep the number of chances up.”
Some scant opportunities haven’t helped, either. The Sabres had zero power plays Jan. 10 in Toronto. They’ve enjoyed two or fewer chances 12 times during their awful run.
Eventually, the law of averages might help the Sabres.
“It comes in streaks, I guess,” Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold said. “We need to catch a hot streak and be a difference. The only way you’re going to get those opportunities are by shooting the puck and outworking your opponent.”
Shooting the puck is Ehrhoff’s forte. But teams have mostly nullified his wicked one-timer. While the German pumped six shots on net Friday, he had zero in consecutive games last week.
Ehrhoff, who’s been moved to the second unit, has one goal and eight points on the power play this season. He averaged six tallies and 25 points in the previous three years.
“He gets keyed on,” Ruff said. “A lot of times the penalty killing will rotate and leave an open guy. They’re not rotating away from him, which puts the puck in our other defenseman or that high forward on the roll.”
Meanwhile, Boyes, who joined the Sabres almost a year ago, tallied 16 goals and 35 points on the power play in 2008-09. He has two goals and eight points this year.
Boyes simply can’t finish.
“Brad has probably had more opportunities to finish and good looks that anybody,” Ruff said.
For now on, Ruff said, there are “going to be ramifications” for taking careless penalties.
On Friday, Ruff benched Nathan Gerbe and Thomas Vanek after taking minors. Both infractions bit the Sabres.
“That little part helps,” Ruff said. “I think we’ve ramped up a little bit more structure for that off ice, undisciplined penalties. We’re going to deal with that internally.”
Vanek has 46 penalty minutes, a high number for a skill player known more for finesse. Ruff’s had meetings with Vanek about the penalties in the past.
Did the message get through?
“I don’t know,” Ruff said. “You can only tell over time. … The message wasn’t received the previous meetings. I thought after the St. Louis game (Jan. 21) it’s been cleaned up a period of time. But to take that penalty (Friday) again, it’s a selfish penalty, and it’s a total lack of discipline.”
Vanek said: “Obviously, it was a bad one. I feel like the guy went down pretty easily. But it doesn’t matter. They called it. It’s on me.”
The Austrian practiced with Jason Pominville again Saturday, his linemate most of the season. The two have skated apart recently.