There are certain parts of the Blackhawks’ game that rarely change. Yes, that includes that much-maligned power play; it’s usually not so good. Their penalty kill is usually on the opposite side of that spectrum: reliable, strong and stingy.
Last year, however…
“That beginning was atrocious,” coach Joel Quenneville said.
Yeah, it was bad. More like horrific (we’ll show the numbers soon enough). And with some of the losses the Blackhawks took this offseason, one figured it would be rough again this season. Instead, it’s back to its efficient self.
The Blackhawks’ penalty kill has rebounded this early season, allowing nine goals on 59 attempts and sitting sixth overall in the NHL (84.7 percent) through the first 15 games. It’s a bit surprising considering the Blackhawks no longer have PK stalwarts such as Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa. So why was it able to find success again this fall?
“Well I can’t tell you all of our secrets,” said Tommy Wingels, who’s been part of the Blackhawks’ PK this season. “I think a summer off and giving the team and a unit a chance to reset is important. I think Ulfie’s [assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson] come in here and brought some new ideas. First and foremost, goaltending has done a good job. No matter if you’re the best or worst penalty kill, your goalie has to be your best player, and so far we’ve been fortunate to have that.”
Crawford’s work has been touted all season and rightfully so – he earned the NHL’s first star of the week on Monday. He was fine last year, too. But that didn’t stop the PK from floundering. Through the same 15-game sample to start last season the Blackhawks’ kill allowed 16 goals on 48 opportunities (66.7 percent). And we’re being kind looking at 15 games. If you just look at their first 10 games last year, they allowed 15 power-play goals on 36 opportunities (58.3 percent). Hence, the “atrocious” description.
So back to this season. The personnel changed but so has the approach. The Blackhawks are back to being more aggressive on the kill, and it’s worked.
“We play different this year. More pressure and we play a little different in lots of areas,” Artem Anisimov said. “[Pressure] the entire time, up ice, neutral zone and especially when they get in our zone. If we see the puck bobble we go with pressure. It’s hard for an opposing team. We just try to pressure and clear the puck and put them in a breakout position.”
The Blackhawks have had their well-documented concerns this early season. Their penalty kill was atrocious last season. This year, it’s back to normal.
“We’ve been good about keeping shifts short. When you have the opportunity to clear a puck or block a shot, those little things our PK has to do, we’ve been doing,” Wingels said. “It’s hard enough to kill penalties in this league, and when you give teams second or third opportunities by not clearing the puck, that usually ends up in our net and I think we’ve done an incredible job thus far of getting those pucks down. So far, so good.”