The Buffalo Sabres' penalty killers have been really good or really bad. There hasn't been much in between.
If they aren't good tonight, things could get bad. Really bad.
The Sabres and their short-handed units have their final test of the season tonight when they face the Pittsburgh Penguins and their dominant power play in Mellon Arena. It is the Sabres' last game against a playoff team; they close the regular season with three teams that are counting down the days till next year.
A Sabres victory will have a threefold effect on the NHL standings. A win would: A) clinch the Northeast Division, giving the Sabres their first division title since 1996-97; B) clinch the Eastern Conference, giving the Sabres their first regular-season conference crown since 1979-80; and C) put the Sabres in first place in the race for the Presidents' Trophy, awarded to the team with the most points. The Detroit Red Wings lead the Sabres, 107-106.
The penalty killers should have a say in tonight's outcome. They blanked Pittsburgh in the teams' first meeting, a 4-2 Sabres win. The Penguins struck twice in each of the last two games to win both, one in a shootout.
"That will be a real good test," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Monday in HSBC Arena. "Obviously, we've had some disappointing games against them on the special teams side, and we know that's an area that we're going to have to be improved in."
The Sabres' penalty-kill unit ranks 21st in the NHL, a significant drop from last year's second-place showing. They have given up 70 goals in 363 chances, a kill rate of 80.7 percent. They gave up just 59 goals in 439 attempts last year, for an 86.6 percent rate.
Despite the drop, this edition of the Sabres is actually better at keeping opponents quiet. The Sabres had 36 perfect nights last season, and they've had 38 this year.
But when the penalty killers slip, they go down hard. The Sabres have given up three power-play goals in a game six times this year, and it happened three times in March. They gave up three such goals only twice last season.
The number of two-goal games has risen as well. Opponents have popped for a pair 18 times, doubling last season's nine. The Sabres have allowed one goal 16 times, while they hit that number 35 times last year.
"We've gone stretches where we've been good, but when we give them up, we give them up in bunches," Ruff said. "We've got four games left to continue to make sure we've got that going in the right direction."
The Sabres are mediocre when they give up two power-play goals, going 9-8-1. Shockingly, the three-goal games haven't hurt them. They are 4-1-1 on their worst nights, winning high-scoring affairs like last week's 6-4 game against the Islanders and last month's 8-5 outing against Montreal.
It would be tough to overcome a poor penalty kill versus the Penguins. Pittsburgh is tied for the NHL lead with 90 power-play goals, and its unit ranks fifth overall with a 20.4 percent success rate.
"We all know how important it is," Sabres right wing Jason Pominville said. "Every penalty kill is going to be huge, as well as power plays. It creates a lot of momentum and can win you games. It's obviously something that we'd like to be a little higher in the rankings. Hopefully, it'll be a different story come playoffs."
The Sabres might want to take tips from the Penguins' short-handed units. They have been almost unbeatable in the past eight games, killing 30 of 33 chances.
"The biggest adjustment is that we've been more desperate," defenseman Sergei Gonchar told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "In my opinion, we weren't jumping enough on the loose pucks. Now we're being more aggressive.
"It was one of those things we had to work on, especially because we're going to need to kill penalties if we want to go far in the playoffs."