Blackhawks

With all the talk about the Blackhawks' struggling power play, penalty kill is back to being team's friend

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USA TODAY

With all the talk about the Blackhawks' struggling power play, penalty kill is back to being team's friend

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.”

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' overtime loss to Lightning: Missed opportunities and one too many penalties

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' overtime loss to Lightning: Missed opportunities and one too many penalties

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night:
 
1. One too many penalties.

The Blackhawks flirted with danger in the first period when they handed the Lightning three straight continuous power plays, a four-minute double minor high-sticking penalty from John Hayden and a Jonathan Toews hooking call that resulted in a 5-on-3 opportunity for Tampa Bay for 43 seconds. 

The penalty kill unit that ranked fourth in the league entering the matchup, however, killed off all three of those penalties against the NHL's top-ranked power play, and did so in commanding fashion.

The Blackhawks went 5-for-5 on the penalty kill in regulation, but couldn't stop the sixth one — a questionable slashing call on Nick Schmaltz —  in overtime when Brayden Point buried the winner on a 4-on-3 opportunity.

It was also interesting that Jon Cooper elected to go with four forwards (Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov, Point and Steven Stamkos) and zero defensemen during that man advantage, putting all of his offensive weapons out on the ice. It's something more teams should do in that situation.

2. Patrick Kane gets going.

After scoring just one goal in his previous 10 games, Kane found the back of the net twice in the opening frame against Tampa Bay and stayed hot against a team he historically plays well against. And he nearly netted a hat trick in overtime but couldn't cash in on a breakaway opportunity.

Kane has 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 14 career regular-season games against the Lightning, and extended his point streak to five games. He has three goals and four assists over that stretch.

We wrote about how important it is for the Blackhawks' superstars to get going again with the offensive contributions mainly coming from role players as of late, and Kane getting into a groove is a perfect step in that direction.

3. How about that goaltending battle?

Corey Crawford and Andrei Vasilevskiy showed us exactly why they belong in the Vezina Trophy discussion, and as of this moment, it's hard not to include both of them as finalists. They put on a goaltending clinic, seemingly topping the other as the game went on.

The two teams combined for 71 scoring chances, and Crawford and Vasilevskiy came up big when their teams need them the most.

Crawford finished with 35 saves on 38 shots (.921 save percentage) in the loss while Vasilevskiy stopped 29 of 31 (.935 save percentage), and improved to 15-2-1 on the season. 

4. Missed opportunities.

You couldn't have asked for a better start for the Blackhawks. They scored the first goal 3:49 into the game and the second on the power play at 15:54, killed off three penalties, including a 5-on-3, had 24 shot attempts (13 on goal) compared to the Lightning's 16 attempts (11 on goal) and led in even-strength scoring chances 9-6.

It was a different story the rest of the way.

The Blackhawks took their foot off the gas pedal a bit and let the Lightning back in the game by getting away from what they do best, and that's control the puck. Obviously, you expected the league's best offense to push back and it's certainly not an easy task to keep them off the scoresheet all together. 

But the Blackhawks had their chances to stay in front or retake the lead and just couldn't bury them. Tampa Bay had 50 shot attempts from the second period on while the Blackhawks had only 32, and finished with 44 scoring chances compared to Chicago's 27.

5. Richard Panik in the doghouse?

Joel Quenneville didn't go to his line blender in this one, but he did shorten some leashes. Panik, most notably, had a season-low 12:28 of ice time in the loss and had 15 shifts, which was second-fewest only to Ryan Hartman (13) on the team.

Panik had a prime chance to break a 2-2 tie in the third period but was denied by Vasilevskiy, who made a remarkable left-pad save. Instead, Panik extended his goal drought to 12 games and didn't get a shift in overtime.

He's certainly better and will get his scoring chances when playing on the top line with Toews and Brandon Saad, but the missed opportunities are magnified in tight losses. It doesn't look like a move down in the lineup is coming given the success of Alex DeBrincat, who gives the Blackhawks an offensive weapon on the third line, but perhaps it should be considered.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?