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.”

2020 NHL Draft: How Rangers getting No. 1 pick affects Blackhawks

2020 NHL Draft: How Rangers getting No. 1 pick affects Blackhawks

On Monday night, during Phase 2 of the NHL Draft lottery, the New York Rangers won the No. 1 overall pick for the 2020 NHL Draft.

Originally, the top pick went to a placeholder team during Phase 1 of the lottery in June. Eight of the teams eliminated during the Stanley Cup Qualifiers  Rangers, Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets — would each have a 12.5% chance of walking away with the No. 1 pick.

New York grabbing the top pick affects the Hawks in a few ways. 

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First, Hawks fans can relax and enjoy the playoffs with their team in it as the Oilers didn't win the pick. Meaning, if the Oilers had won it, it would have belonged to the Hawks if the Oilers eliminated them in the qualifying round and not the other way around.

Second, the Blackhawks could now get the No. 16 or 17 overall pick if they lose to the Golden Knights in Round One of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, depending on the results of the Montreal Canadiens-Philadelphia Flyers series.  

The No. 1 pick of this year's draft is expected to be forward Alexis Lafrenière, who registered 35 goals and 77 assists for a league-leading 112 points in 52 games this season with the Rimouski Océanic of the QMJHL, where he also served as the team captain. 

So former Blackhawks winger Artemi Panarin — a Hart Trophy finalist this year with the Rangers — could have a young, skilled forward helping him generate even more offense for New York as early as next season.

Related: Why former Blackhawk Artemi Panarin should win the Hart Trophy

The 2020 NHL Draft is scheduled for Oct. 9 and 10. It was originally scheduled for June 26-27 in Montreal but postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which paused the NHL on March 12.

Robin Lehner starting Game 1 for Vegas Golden Knights against Blackhawks Tuesday

Robin Lehner starting Game 1 for Vegas Golden Knights against Blackhawks Tuesday

Ahead of the start of Round One of the Stanley Cup Playoffs' matchup between the Vegas Golden Knights and Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer announced former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner will get the start in net for Vegas in Game 1 against his former team. 

The 2019 Vezina Trophy finalist was traded from Chicago to Vegas ahead of Feb. 24's trade deadline. He was 16-10-5 as a Hawk during the 2019-20 regular season with a 3.01 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage prior to the move.

Related: Former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner unveils new pads

Lehner was in net for the Knights' overtime win against the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday in a round-robin contest to help Vegas grab the No. 1 seed in the West for Round One, pitting them against the Blackhawks, who were the No. 12 seed in the qualifying round and were reseeded to be No. 8 for Round One.

Following Saturday's game, Lehner was asked about facing the Blackhawks and his former goalie partner Corey Crawford and if playing with the Hawks earlier this season carries an advantage.

Related: Former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner's birthday cake is unreal

"I don't know. All I know is it's going to be fun playing them," Lehner said. "They're a very good hockey team and I have a lot of respect for them, the whole organization... but I think I really like it here (with Vegas), we're a great hockey team."

The 29-year-old netminder got off to a hot start with Vegas ahead of the NHL pause on March 12 going 3-0-0 with 1.67 goals-against average and .940 save percentage.

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