Two seasons ago, the Blackhawks had the NHL's worst penalty kill in the last 30 years with a percentage of 72.7. It was a demoralizing part of their game.
Last season, the Blackhawks improved dramatically by finishing tied for No. 8 with an 82.1 percent kill rate. The goaltending of Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner had a lot to do with that, but the structure was certainly better.
This season, the Blackhawks were expected to take a step back in the penalty kill department because they didn't have a Crawford or Lehner to be the last line of defense when breakdowns happen. But despite that, the Blackhawks are showing they're still a top penalty kill team.
After giving up seven goals on 25 opportunities in their first six games of the season for a percent of 72.0, which ranked 25th, the Blackhawks have killed off 21 of 22 penalties over their last eight games for a kill rate of 95.5 percent. No team has a better percentage over that span than the Blackhawks.
Goaltending, surprisingly, has contributed immensely thanks to the play of Kevin Lankinen and Malcolm Subban. The Blackhawks, as a team, have the seventh-best penalty kill save percentage at .900, which is an even higher percentage than last season (.889) when it ranked No. 3.
"I feel like the biggest key, always, on the penalty kill is the goalie," Mattias Janmark said. "The goalies have stepped up and made some big saves, not only 4-on-5 but 5-on-5 as well, and that's the key. It gives us confidence and we can kind of take away what we want and then give them something and then the goalie will make the save, so I think that's the main key and really the only key and then gives us confidence and everyone plays a little better."
The Blackhawks are coming off a two-game set in which they killed off all five penalties against the Dallas Stars, who had the league's best power-play percentage (40.0) going into the series. The Blackhawks allowed 10 scoring chances on those five opportunities but only one of them came from a high-danger area, according to Natural Stat Trick.
That hasn't been the case all season, with the Blackhawks ranking 24th in shorthanded shot attempts from the slot against (2.05) and inner slot shots on goal against (0.56), according to Sportlogiq. But they do rank No. 7 in passes to the slot against (1.19) and No. 8 in defensive-zone faceoffs won resulting in a clean exit (65.5 percent), two areas that have drastically improved even from last season.
The stat that stands out the most though? The Blackhawks are one of the league's best at recovering pucks from shot attempts by the opposition, ranking No. 5 at 58.6 percent. And those typically lead to clears.
The Blackhawks, by no means, are perfect in the penalty kill department. Their team save percentage could come back down to earth at some point and present challenges.
But the overall structure has taken big strides over the last two seasons and the special teams unit as a whole is a huge reason why the Blackhawks are in the playoff hunt at the 20 percent mark of the season.