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The Penalty Kill Is Killing The Blackhawks

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

How long can the Hawks keep winning without improving their penalty kill?

The Chicago Blackhawks sit atop the Western Conference with 24 points. This is somewhat surprising, considering that they have the worst penalty kill in the league (66.7%). No other team has a success rate lower than 70%. The Hawks are tied for the most power play goals allowed (17) with the Calgary Flames. 

In their season opener against the St. Louis Blues, the Hawks allowed three power play goals in a 5-2 loss. The trend continued in the second game of the season, when the Hawks gave up another three power play goals to the Nashville Predators in a 3-2 loss. During the first five games of the season, the Hawks allowed 11 power play goals, a little more than 60% of the total goals allowed during that stretch.

The Hawks have had success on the penalty kill in the past. In 2013, the Hawks finished third in penalty-kill success rate in the league (87.2%). It was one of the reasons why the Hawks had such a dominant season, winning both the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup. They had dependable players who were regularly used on the PK, including Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik, who are no longer on the team. While other factors help a team win games and go far in the postseason, the success of the penalty kill units plays a major role in a team’s success. Last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins finished fifth in penalty kill success rate (84.4%) and went on to win the Stanley Cup. 

So, what’s the problem? Why are the Hawks so terrible on the penalty kill this season?

It’s not just goaltending. It’s not bad luck. 

It’s lack of aggression. And, it’s lack of consistency. 

Image titleMike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s what the Hawks do on the penalty kill. They set up a four-man box in front of the net…and that’s pretty much it. Over the course of the season, Marcus Kruger, Tyler Motte, Duncan Keith, and Niklas Hjalmarsson have played most frequently on the penalty kill (8.9%). After a strong start, rookie Tyler Motte was injured on Nov. 6th and will be out for up to three weeks. Since Motte’s injury, the Hawks have relied on other players during the penalty kill. 

Jonathan Toews is one of the best two-way players in the game and has earned more time on the PK over the last ten games, when the Hawks penalty kill has slightly improved. He plays an average of 1:44 on the PK during each game. Kruger, Toews, Hjalmarsson, and Brent Seabrook have played on the PK 12.3% of the time during this stretch.

Image titleFrom SB Nation

Overall, the Hawks challenge the puck if it goes along the boards or below the goal line, but for the most part, they pick a spot and stay there. They rarely pressure the point or force opposing teams to make tough plays. Teams get way too much time and space to set up plays and find the perfect scoring opportunities. As a result, there are a lot of uncontested passes and open lanes for one-timers. The opposing players are also able to set up screens in front of the goaltender without being interfered much by the Hawks. 

Most of the time, it looks like the Hawks are four bystanders, watching the puck and the other players too much and not taking a more aggressive approach. They could challenge the point and force a turnover or at least decrease the quality of a scoring chance. The Hawks need to stop sitting back on their heels and find the balance between challenging the other team and playing smart hockey. 

Look at the Minnesota Wild. In the first week of November, the Wild had the top-ranked penalty kill in the NHL, with a success rate of 96.3%. They are currently ranked fifth in the league (88.1%). What’s one of the main reasons for their success? They have become more aggressive this season. The Wild changed their penalty kill style, striking that perfect balance between pressuring the opposing team and not aimlessly chasing players around the ice. 

The good news is that the Hawks have slowly started to improve their penalty kill. They allowed 14 power play goals during their first seven games, but during their last nine games — including a seven-game winning streak — the Hawks allowed one power play goal or less each game and only three goals overall. Their penalty kill doesn’t look dramatically different, but the Hawks haven’t taken as many penalties as they did at the beginning of the season.  The Hawks need to find the right combination of players to establish consistent PK units and become more aggressive overall. 

As the season progresses and the Hawks get more chances to improve their penalty kill, their success rate will most likely increase. Special teams might not seem like a big issue to the Hawks right now, but it could easily become a difference maker in the near future and determine whether or not they will have a long postseason run. 

As the Hawks embark on their annual Circus Trip, with seven road games ahead, they need to find the solution to their PK problems. Becoming more aggressive might sound like a simple answer, but their penalty kill is so bad that even the slightest change could make the biggest difference. 

Edited by Joe Sparacio, Emily Greitzer, Vincent Choy.

SQuiz
What is the NHL record for worst penalty kill percentage in a single season?
Created 11/15/16
  1. 53.2%
  2. 67.7%
  3. 58.9%
  4. 68.3%

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