CHICAGO – It was the backbone of their memorable 2013 championship run, but the Chicago Blackhawks have struggled to kill penalties in the first four games of their Stanley Cup title defense.
The penalty-killing effort looked a little better in a 3-2 win against the New York Islanders on Friday night at United Center, not allowing a goal against a pair of man-advantages, but there is still quote a lot of room to improve.
"We had a zero night tonight … that's progress," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We'll take baby steps and progress from there."
After finishing third in the NHL for both the regular season and the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs (87.2 percent success rate, followed by 90.8 percent in the postseason), Chicago now ranks last in the League (54.6 percent).
The Blackhawks have allowed five power-play goals in 11 times shorthanded thus far, including three on six chances in a 6-5 win against the Washington Capitals on opening night followed by two goals allowed on three combined chances in the next two games – a shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and a gut-wrenching 3-2 loss on Wednesday to the rival St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center.
Heading into a game Saturday night at United Center against the Buffalo Sabres (8 p.m., NHLN), they're hoping to build off a Friday night effort against a team that's only score two power-play goals in 18 chances (11.1 percent).
The Blackhawks are also searching for adequate PK replacements following two off-season trades that sent away Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik.
"That's one area we have to get better," Quenneville said. "Whether it's blocking the shot or whether it's the clear [or] whether it's the faceoff [or] whether it's loose pucks[or] whether it's the pressure, I think we can improve."
Blocking shots and pressuring the puck are the two biggest shortfalls, followed closely by winning more faceoffs while shorthanded.
"There's more shots getting through [than last season], but the ones that are getting through that are bothersome are the wrist shots," Quenneville said. "Those are the ones that seem to be going in. We should definitely be blocking that, whether it's the first layer or the second layer. Those are definitely tricky if they get past you, so hopefully we can cut those out."
They also need to gel quickly to fix the chemistry issues that arose with the absence of Frolik and Bolland. Each guys worked in near-perfect unity with the rest of their PK units and both hounded the puck out top – disrupting power plays and setting up a number of shorthanded scoring chances.
"There's a couple of new guys [this season], but mostly it's the old core, so we understand the system," Marian Hossa, one of Chicago's top penalty killers, said. "Whether it's because it's early in the season [or another reason], there's hesitation … and we have to fix it."
Chicago will probably have a new face in the lineup, as well. After the game Friday, the Blackhawks called up skilled center Brandon Pirri – the leading scorer in the American Hockey League last season. They sent down power forward Jimmy Hayes to clear a spot for Pirri, who joins the Blackhawks at a time when Quenneville is still tinkering with his line combinations.
That means Pirri might even get a crack at centering the second line between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.
As for the Sabres, checking line forward Patrick Kaleta will miss the first of two games before his hearing with the League for a hit he delivered in a 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday – and he'll be replaced at right wing on the fourth line by former Blackhawks enforcer John Scott.
The 6-foot-8, 259-pound Scott has shifted to forward from defense full-time since being traded from Chicago in the 2011-12 season. He's looking forward to returning to United Center for the first time since the trade.
"It's great to be back," said Scott, whose outgoing personality and sense of humor endears him to fans and media alike. "It's going to be fun to go against them now. I would like to do all of it … score, fight and get an assist. Maybe get two Gordie Howe hat tricks, two fights, two goals, two assists … might as well, right? If that happens, I might just take off the skates and retire, like, 'OK, that's it. Good night, everybody. Good career and here's my stick for the Hockey Hall of Fame. I haven't score in like 150 games, so it'd be nice to get one here. "
Buffalo will also dress 19-year-old center Mikhail Grigorenko. The 12th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft was a healthy scratch against the Blue Jackets. Ryan Miller will get the start in net for the Sabres, while Corey Crawford will likely get back in net for the Blackhawks after getting a night off on Friday.
Here's how the Sabres and Blackhawks might line up Saturday night:
Thomas Vanek – Cody Hodgson – Steve Ott
Marcus Foligno – Tyler Ennis – Drew Stafford
Zemgus Girgensons – Johan Larsson – Brian Flynn
Cody McCormick – Mikhail Grigorenko –John Scott
Christian Ehrhoff – Mark Pysyk
Jamie McBain– Tyler Myers
Alexander Sulzer – Rasmus Ristolainen
Scratches: Patrick Kaleta, Mike Weber, Kevin Porter
Injured: Ville Leino (rib), Henrik Tallinder (upper body), Joel Armia (hand), Corey Tropp (jaw), Nikita Zadorov (finger)
Brandon Saad - Jonathan Toews - Patrick Kane
Patrick Sharp - Marcus Kruger - Marian Hossa
Bryan Bickell - Andrew Shaw - Joakim Nordstrom
Brandon Bollig - Brandon Pirri - Ben Smith
Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya - Niklas Hjalmarsson
Nick Leddy - Michael Kostka
Scratches: Michal Handzus, Michael Rozsival, Sheldon Brookbank