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Blackhawks penalty-killing is improving at the right time

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Updated: April 12, 2014 6:20AM

BUFFALO, N.Y. — It wasn’t exactly a highlight-reel play. Marcus Kruger, as he has done so many times the last two seasons, read the play, stuck out his stick, stole the puck before it got to Ville Leino of the Sabres and carried it up the ice. Simple as that. Fifteen or 20 seconds later, the Sabres’ power-play unit had the puck again in the offensive zone.

But Kruger had done his job.

“I know it doesn’t seem like much, but you can ask our guys on the power play when they’ve got to come back all the way, 200 feet, and grab the puck and rush up again,” Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford said. “It kind of gets annoying.”

Well, then the Hawks have been awfully annoying lately.

After spending much of the season in 29th place in the league penalty-killing rankings, allowing a goal on nearly a quarter of opponents’ power plays, the Hawks have found the aggressiveness and precision that carried them to one of the league’s best kill rates last season.

They’ve killed off 53 of 57 penalties over their last 16 games, climbing all the way to 19th in the league at 81.1 percent — no small feat given just how bad things were for the first few months of the season.

‘‘We know that’s going to be huge for us down the road,” said captain Jonathan Toews, who has been paired with Brandon Saad on the PK while Marian Hossa recovers from an upper-body injury. “Everyone’s kind of talked about our penalty-kill ranking all year, and it’s still not where it should be. But to us, it doesn’t matter. If it can make a difference and find a way to help us win some of these tight games like we did [Sunday in Buffalo with a 5-for-5 effort], then that’s what it’s all about.”

When the kill wasn’t working, the Hawks struggled to come up with explanations, citing such nebulous ideas as confidence and momentum. Fittingly, now that the kill is clicking, they still don’t have a tangible idea why. Fundamentally and structurally, not much has changed. Neither has the personnel — it’s still Kruger with Michal Handzus and Toews with Saad up front (with Ben Smith rotating in), and Niklas Hjalmarsson with Johnny Oduya and Duncan Keith with Brent Seabrook on the back end.

But the Hawks have been far more aggressive on the kill lately — stepping in front of passing and shooting lanes, attacking point men, pressuring entries and disrupting their opponents’ rhythm and ability to set up on the power play.

Toews and Saad used the word “committed” to describe the Hawks’ attitude on the kill.

“For a while now, we’ve been much more sound, much more understanding of what we have to do, and we’ve committed to it,” Toews said. “We’ve got guys in lanes, we’ve got D-men especially blocking a lot of shots, helping out our goaltender. We know it’s important, and we’ve committed ourselves to it.”

The Hawks had the third-best PK unit in the league last season, killing at an 87.2 percent clip. In the playoffs, they were even better at 90.7 percent. It helped mitigate a dreadful power play. This season, the Hawks have one of the top power plays in the league.

Adding an elite penalty kill to that could prove huge in the playoffs, especially when goals are likely to come at a premium against elite Central Division goaltenders such as the Blues’ Ryan Miller and the Avalanche’s Semyon Varlamov.

With only 17 games left in the regular season, the Hawks are unlikely to climb much higher in the league rankings. But timing is everything.

“This is the time of year to start getting good and start bearing down,” Saad said. “Right now, we’re playing with confidence and playing well on the PK.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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