CHICAGO - The Chicago Blackhawks are getting better at preserving third-period leads, though they'd like to make things a little easier on themselves while doing it.
Patrick Kane's power-play goal at 19:35 of the second period Saturday night at United Center gave Chicago a two-goal margin and the Blackhawks hung on for the second night in a row to win a one-goal game, beating the Buffalo Sabres - Kane's favorite childhood team -- 2-1.
Drew Stafford scored at 11:49 of the final period for the winless Sabres (0-5-1) to make things interesting, but Corey Crawford earned the game's No. 1 star by making several huge stops down the stretch to outduel Buffalo's Ryan Miller (38 saves).
"I was just playing," Crawford said after making 12 of his 28 saves in the third period. "Teams are good. They're going to create stuff, but we were able to get in the slot for rebounds [in the third] and get them out of there, get all the extra stuff out of there. It's nice to win a tight one like that."
Ben Smith scored the first goal for the Blackhawks (3-1-1), who swept their first back-to-back set of the season. Chicago also preserved a one-goal lead to beat the New York Islanders 3-2 on Friday night, after wasting an early two-goal lead late in the first period.
"It would be nice to score that third goal," Kane said. "I think sometimes you might think about that too much. You start thinking too much on the offensive side and we're giving up more chances defensively. We've got to be better at that."
Still, being able to grind out wins like this was the reason the Blackhawks were so impressive last season - one that ended with their second Stanley Cup title in 36 months. If they want to become the first team since the 1997 and '98 Detroit Red Wings to repeat, they'll have to keep finding ways to come out with two points - whether it's the easy way or the hard way.
The Blackhawks also blew a two-goal lead and lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a shootout last Saturday and saw the St. Louis Blues score with 21.1 seconds left on Wednesday for a 3-2 victory at Scottrade Center.
"We had some chances to make it 3-1 tonight," Kane said. "I don't think we got the shots that we wanted, or didn't get them through to the net, so hopefully it will come as the season goes on. I think we have a lot of confidence from what we did last year in these close games to come out and win them, so hopefully we'll get better at preserving the lead a little bit."
Much like Friday's game against the Islanders, Chicago took control from the start against the Sabres - who've now scored just six goals in as many games to start the season.
Chicago had three power plays and a 20-6 margin in shots after 20 minutes but managed only one goal thanks to Miller, whom Buffalo coach Ron Rolston feels pretty lucky to have in net.
"He's basically, at this point, one of the best players in the League in terms of influence on their hockey team," Rolston said, stating a strong case for Miller as still one of the NHL's elite backstops.
Miller just wasn't able to do it all by himself.
Smith, playing right wing on the fourth line, redirected Brent Seabrook's point shot past him midway through the first - which was nice for Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville to see.
Production from the bottom-six is vital to the Blackhawks, who traded away Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik and didn't re-sign Viktor Stalberg after winning the Cup in June. Smith's goal was his first of the season and second point in as many nights. Five of the 13 goals Chicago has scored were credited to guys shifting in bottom-six roles at the time.
"I thought [Smith] had a good game, nice to see him score and I thought that line played well too," Quenneville said. "The other lines, we're generating a lot of high-quality stuff, but we've got nothing to show for it."
Chicago continued to dominate play during the second, with Miller keeping his team in the game by making 16 saves. But he was helpless when Kane took a perfect cross-ice pass from Patrick Sharp and snapped it into the net for a power-play goal.
It was the third assist of the season for Sharp, who played his 600th career NHL game. He's also sitting on 199 career goals and waiting for the birth of his second child, another daughter, who's due to arrive any day.
Other than Miller's performance and the Sabres outshooting the Blackhawks 13-3 in the third, there weren't a ton of positives for Buffalo. The Sabres gave Chicago five power plays in the first two periods, including the one that wound up beating them on Kane's fourth goal in five games.
"We started to play 5-on-5 more [in the third]," Miller said. "The 5-on-5 chances were pretty good. We just can't get ourselves in all these different situations over the course of the night. We've had a handful of games so far where it's been all different situations or ways to put ourselves in a bad situation. Tonight it was the penalties. It just left the first period as us having to defend, run around and waste energy."
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