The Buffalo Sabres' penalty-killing unit moved out of the league basement this week.
The group, which spent much of the month at the bottom of the NHL ranking, had a perfect record in its last three games. It stopped 13 power plays by three different opponents. The Sabres will try to extend that record tonight when they host the New York Rangers in Marine Midland Arena (7:30, Empire; Radio 710, 104.1 FM).
The hot streak improved the unit's success rate for killing penalties to 80.7 percent. The Sabres moved ahead of the Vancouver Canucks (79.8 percent) after Tuesday's game.
There's a stark and odd contrast between the Sabres' penalty killing at home and on the road. The Sabres are third in the league in penalty killing in home games at 90.1, but they are well behind everyone on the road at 74.0 percent.
Coach Lindy Ruff says he has learned he can't take this team's penalty-killers for granted. He made it a top priority in the past few games, and it showed.
"I think the thing we've done is really paid special attention to it again," he said. "It seems every time we get it going, we back off or we don't show them any video or we don't talk about it. Then it comes up and nips us. So we've gone about it as if we're not going to assume anything any more."
The coaching staff's latest move to try to improve the penalty-killing is to hold a meeting of its participants, led by assistant coach Mike Ramsey. They look at video of that night's opponents and discuss what might work best against the opponents' power play.
"Before each game, it helps to go look at what they are doing so you know what to look for from each team," Derek Plante said. "It's something we weren't doing a little earlier in the year. We have an idea of what we're doing, so we have a specific plan against each team. That definitely helps. I think the key is we have to play a little more desperate to get the puck out or to block a shot."
Even with this team's recent success in this department, sitting in 25th place out of 26 teams is nothing to shout about. Michael Peca, a prime Sabre penalty-killer, feels a little embarrassment when he looks at the league statistics.
"It's something we're not proud of but it's something we can continue to improve and hopefully move up," he said.
Last season the Sabres were a much more respectable 12th in the league in penalty-killing with a 83.8 percent rate. Since the members of the unit are basically the same -- Peca, Dixon Ward, Brian Holzinger and Plante have been up front -- the team should be expected to post similar numbers.
The 1996-97 Sabres also were known as a team that would attack opponents even while short-handed. Buffalo led the league last season with 16 goals while it was a man down. Opposing teams had to be careful while it was on the power play, knowing that the Sabres were ready to pounce if they had a defensive lapse. That, in turn, cut down on their aggressiveness and their success rate.
In contrast, this season's team has only two short-handed goals in 35 games. Plante thinks the Sabres have other priorities, at least for now.
"You'd like to see that (short-handed goals), but the first key is stop them," he said. "If you can score that's a bonus, but until we can shore up things so we're not giving up so many goals, maybe we should wait on that."
Buffalo's penalty-killers have done their job well against the Rangers this season. New York is 0 for 11 in the two previous meetings, and that has helped the Sabres gain a tie and a win. Peca says it's a reminder that good penalty-killing is only a means to an end. "It's not just a case of moving up to be No. 1 or 2 in the league," he said. "It's a matter of killing penalties, because that's where you can win hockey games."