BUFFALO -- The Chicago Blackhawks are finding their penalty-killing stride just in time for the stretch run. Chicago went 5-for-5 on the man disadvantage in a 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night at First Niagara Center, including a crucial kill with 5:32 left on the clock in the third period.
After struggling for long stretches of the regular season, Chicago is now 53-of-57 in its past 16 games, close to 93 percent as the regular season stretches into its crucial final 18 games.
"Everybody's kind of been talking about our penalty-kill ranking all year," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said on Sunday. "It's still not where we want it to be but if you can make a difference in a minor way and help us win these tight games like it did tonight, then that's what it's all about."
A penalty kill that once ranked near the worst in the league is now creeping toward the middle of the pack. Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said the penalty-killing unit has rounded into shape at just the right time for his team.
"You're always going to have some good stretches and bad stretches," he said after Sunday's win. "We certainly had a tough stretch for too long, but I like the way we're trending."
Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford said Chicago's defensemen have done a great job of blocking shots during the team's recent run of penalty-killing success.
"All five guys on the ice, we've been on the same page for a while now," Crawford said. "Our D-men have been great, I don't think they get enough credit."
Ryan Miller is no longer a concern for the Chicago Blackhawks when they play the Buffalo Sabres, though his impact on their playoff goals is officially a much bigger issue. The 12-year veteran goaltender was traded by Buffalo to Central Division-leading St. Louis just days before the trade deadline, giving a team with Stanley Cup aspirations a shutdown netminder to use against the defending Cup champions.
Miller has four career starts against Chicago, allowing eight goals and going 2-2 with a .939 save percentage in those starts. It's a small sample size for sure, but Quenneville knows overcoming St. Louis for the Central Division title became that much harder with Miller in net for the Blues.
"He's certainly a top goalie in the game and he's always tough to beat. He always plays well against us," Quenneville said. "I think that St. Louis helped themselves with him in the net, and he's played well since he's been there."
Chicago remains four points back of the Blues, who also won Sunday night with a 3-2 shootout win over Minnesota. Brian Elliott started for St. Louis Sunday, but Miller has won his first four starts with the Blues, who have now won five straight.
"It's something that makes our division even tougher and even stronger in that race," Quenneville said. "To be in first place is going to be challenging for us. Certainly our ambition is to try and be first, but [when] you have a goalie like that he's going to make you a better team."
Chicago has two home games left against St. Louis this season, next Wednesday and on April 6.
Sabres forward Tyler Ennis thought he had a goal early in the first period when Crawford lost the puck while handling it outside of his crease. Ennis swung at the stick of Crawford, who fumbled the puck and watched as Ennis sent a backhand into the net to apparently tie the game at one with 5:23 gone in the first period. Instead, the goal was waved off as Ennis was called for a hooking penalty and went to the penalty box. After the game, Ennis wasn't very happy with the call.
"He kind of lost a handle on it," Ennis said. "It didn’t really have anything to do with my slash, I guess you could call it. I had one hand on my stick."
"That was a tough call," he added later. "Obviously that was the difference in the game."
Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson left Sunday's win after blocking two shots on a shift early in the third period. He returned to the ice and Quenneville said his sturdy blueliner was OK after the game.
"He's a warrior-type guy," Quenneville said. "He always finds a way to get through it."