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Blackhawks' penalty kill on record pace

NEWARK, N.J. — Through their game Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils, the Blackhawks have a sparkling 91.3 percent success rate on the penalty kill. Not only is that the best in the NHL, but it’s on pace to be the best in league history. No team has broken 90 percent for a full season.

Ben Smith, who teams with Marcus Kruger to form the Hawks’ top penalty-killing duo, knew the Hawks were around that lofty mark.

‘‘It’s hard to not know,’’ he said. ‘‘You start to pitch some shutouts, and you realize things are going pretty good. We’re excited about it, we’re happy with it and we want to keep it going and keep getting better.’’

The Hawks have given up a mere seven power-play goals in 80 opportunities and have killed off 21 of their opponents’ last 22 power plays. Kruger and Smith now have that same feeling of excitement and confidence with each kill that Kruger and Michael Frolik had in 2013.

‘‘You realize that, realistically, teams are going to score,’’ Smith said. ‘‘But the goal every day is to give up nothing. And when it’s going well, you get out there and feel confident with it. It’s when you start getting hesitant that things start going downhill.’’


Slotting in

Winger Patrick Sharp returned to the lineup after missing 14 consecutive games with an apparent knee injury. He and coach Joel Quenneville acknowledged it can be tricky to rejoin a team that has been rolling without disrupting the chemistry, but both thought Sharp would have no problem.

‘‘You just want to find a role within the team, take the shifts you’re given and do the most with them,’’ Sharp said.

Hammer down

Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson is battling through an undisclosed nagging injury. He sat out practice Monday and the morning skate Tuesday, but whatever he’s dealing with isn’t severe enough to keep him out of games.

‘‘He’s fine,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘He’s a battler.’’

Vote early, often

Chicago is stuffing the ballot box for the NHL All-Star Game next month in Columbus, Ohio, but not as well as Latvia is.

Corey Crawford leads all goalies in fan voting, Duncan Keith leads all defensemen (Brent Seabrook is third) and Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are second and third among forwards. But none of them is anywhere near Buffalo Sabres winger Zemgus Girgensons, who is 142nd in the NHL in points but first in votes.

Girgensons , who’s benefitting from Latvia’s famously passionate fans and an online campaign to boost his unlikely candidacy, has 803,805 votes. Kane is second with 375,758.