Penalty kill key part of equation for Blackhawks chasing fourth Stanley Cup in eight years

Penalty kill key part of equation for Blackhawks chasing fourth Stanley Cup in eight years

It took the Blackhawks nearly two months to climb out of the basement in the penalty kill department after a historically bad October when they allowed 15 goals on 30 attempts in their first eight games of the season.

Since then, the Blackhawks rank ninth in the league with an 83 percent success rate. 

The unit came up large in Friday's 3-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, killing all four penalties, a few of which came at key moments of the game.

"Penalty killing was outstanding," Joel Quenneville said after the game. "I thought they did a good job of denying the shots, the point shots from the middle especially, their execution and movement together was excellent. They had some good clears, (Corey Crawford) made some good stops. Critical timing of some of the kills was important as well."

The Blue Jackets, who have been a top-5 power play team for the majority of the campaign, slipped outside the top-10 with an 0-for-4 night, extending their goal drought on the man advantage to nine games (0-for-17 over that span).

They recorded nine shots on their four opportunities Friday, but the Blackhawks did a great job of limiting their quality chances.

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"Yeah, the penalty kill was huge," said Patrick Kane, who had three assists and moved within four points of Connor McDavid in the NHL's scoring race. "It seems like we did a great job penalty killing as far as not really giving them too many lanes to shoot. Guys were getting in front of pucks, and when they got shots through, it seemed like they were going wide or (Crawford) was getting his body on it. Great job by them tonight. That's going to be huge going into the playoffs."

It gave the Blackhawks some much-needed confidence in that area after they went 9-for-13 (69.2 percent) in their previous four games before Pittsburgh's contest, where they bounced back with a 2-for-2 performance. That's now six straight penalties killed, putting the team back on track.

The Blackhawks increased their season point total to 107 with the victory, and reached the 50-win mark for only the second time in franchise history. They've all but locked up the Central Division and home-ice advantage throughout the Western Conference, but they're not losing sight of the bigger prize.

"I like how we’ve progressed in our game," Quenneville said. "Tough league, tough conference, tough division. But we’re happy with what we’ve achieved in the regular season. That’s not what we’re looking for, but it’s certainly put us in the spot we wanted."

In their previous three championship runs, the Blackhawks have finished fifth (2010), third (2013) and 10th (2015) in penalty kill percentage. If they want to get to where they want to go, which is a fourth Stanley Cup in eight years, the penalty kill is a vital part of the equation.

A sneak peek at Cam Ward's new Blackhawks goalie mask


A sneak peek at Cam Ward's new Blackhawks goalie mask

It's a new year, new team for Cam Ward, who spent his first 13 NHL seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes before signing in Chicago on a one-year deal this summer. That means a newly-designed goalie mask is required to match up with his new team's colors, uniform and Blackhawks logo.

The designer of Ward's goalie masks Steve Nash, whose clients include 2017-18 Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck, two-time Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Quick and three-time 30-win netminder Martin Jones, shared a teaser on Twitter of Ward's new Blackhawks-themed mask for the upcoming season and it's sweet.

Check it out:

Why Ryan Hartman is betting on himself going into another contract year with Predators


Why Ryan Hartman is betting on himself going into another contract year with Predators

Ryan Hartman has been through this before. Back in December of 2012, he sustained a torn labrum in his right shoulder but played through it because the Plymouth Whalers were in the middle of a playoff run. He waited until the offseason to have it surgically repaired and was cleared for contact just in time for him to attend his first training camp with the Blackhawks in September of 2013.

This time was a little different though.

Hartman had been acquired by the Nashville Predators at the trade deadline in exchange for prospect Victor Ejdsell and a 2018 first- and fourth-round pick — a hefty price to pay — in hopes of serving as an additional spark plug for a Predators team looking to load up for a second consecutive Stanley Cup run.

So when Hartman was brushed by Nathan MacKinnon along the boards, lost his footing and fell on his left shoulder late in Game 4 of the first round against Colorado, he immediately knew something was up.

"It didn't feel great at all," said Hartman, who went straight to the dressing room and had team doctors pop it back into place. "I finished the game and was able to finish playoffs in like a modified sling, which sucked to play with, but it's playoffs. It's one of those things where there are many guys playing through injuries and I was one of them."

Hartman, who's been rehabbing and training in Chicago, received the green light to fully participate in hockey-related drills last Monday but was advised to delay his Chicago Pro Hockey League debut for one more week just to err on the side of caution. On Wednesday, he got back into a game-type setting and "felt good" after 50 minutes of action going up against former teammates Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane.

Now he can fully focus on this upcoming season and amp up his on-ice training to a level he couldn't get to while recovering from shoulder surgery with training camp a month away.

Hartman was a restricted free agent this summer and recently re-signed with the Predators on a one-year deal worth $875,000. Clearly, he's betting on himself to bounce back to his rookie year form when he scored 19 goals and cash out on a larger paycheck down the line, even though he had multiple longer-term offers from the Predators.

"Yeah we talked, [GM David Poile] wants me to be there, I want to be there, we have a good relationship," Hartman said. "Obviously, he gave up a lot of stuff to take me and sees me in the future of the team and I see myself there too. There's a lot of little things that go into negotiations — if it's money wise or length — and there was a various amount [of offers] that was thrown out on both sides. With no [arbitration] rights, the best thing for me and my team was to bet on myself, take the year and go from there next year."

With that comes the pressure of having to earn another contract for the second straight year, which is also risky considering he's coming off an injury that sidelined him all summer. But that's just the way he wants it.

"Either way I want to play my best, if I have a contract or not for long-term," Hartman said. "There is the benefit of having security with long-term deals, but you see guys, in history, that sign these deals and maybe have a year or two of, not really being complacent, but just feeling satisfied. I don't like the feeling of being satisfied. I'm not saying that's why I took that contract over another contract, but it was a good month and a half of debating one of the other three [offers]. My family and my agent, we chose this was the best for me and the team as well."

It's easy to see why the Predators are happy with this deal, too. Hartman is better suited to play in a bottom-six role on a really good team but has the ability to play in the top-six if needed. A strong season out of him and they'll be happy to reward him with a longer-term offer next summer. It also means he'd be making an impact while making less than $1 million, and every contending team needs those contributions from their depth players.

Pull up the Predators' CapFriendly page and you'll notice generous contract after generous contract for a majority of their players, particularly their core group. Look no further than Ryan Ellis, who signed an eight-year extension on Tuesday that carries a cap hit of $6.25 million. He certainly left money on the table but elected to take less to follow the lead of everyone else in Nashville because the ultimate goal is to keep the band together.

"You look at Sidney Crosby, one of the best players in the league, isn't even making close to the most money in the league and that's a reason why they've won two Cups," Hartman said. "They have space, maybe not necessarily as much as the Preds do, but Poile's good at that, he's good at stressing winning, the importance of winning, and keeping a team together. Sometimes when you go year to year losing four or five players every summer, it takes a toll having to introduce yourself to new guys all the time. Keeping the same group is really beneficial."

The Predators won't have to do much introducing next month. They're essentially rolling back the same team that arguably would've reached the Stanley Cup Final if they had gotten past the Winnipeg Jets. Hartman will be an important part of that group, only this time he'll be there from the start.

"That's what I'm really excited for," he said. "It's tough coming in [halfway through the season], it kind of feels like ... it's your first time getting called up with the new team. You're adjusting, you're trying not to make a mistake, trying to earn a spot, per se, earn the respect of your peers, so having that and going through a playoff run and a Game 7, if you go through a Game 7 with anybody, it's a bond. The stuff you fight through and you play for each other, to be able to go through a training camp and the ups and downs throughout the whole season, it's going to be exciting. I fell in love with the group for the short time I was there and I'm excited to be there at the start of training camp."