At this point last season, the Blackhawks’ penalty-killing unit was at a loss to explain why it was so bad, why it was 29th in the league, why it was getting scored on about 30 percent of the time by opposing power plays. It was bad luck. It was in their heads. It was inexplicable.
Now? The Hawks’ penalty-killing unit is almost at a loss to explain why it’s so good, why it’s No. 1 in the league, why it has given up as many power-play goals all season as the power-play unit has given up shorthanded goals (four).
Sometimes the snowball just rolls in the other direction.
“We talked about it right away in training camp, that we wanted to get off to a better start than last year,” said Marcus Kruger, the Hawks’ top killer. “So far we’re doing that, and our confidence keeps getting higher.”
The numbers are as remarkably good this season as they were remarkably bad last season. Through 18 games, the Hawks have given up just four goals in the 52 times they’ve been shorthanded. That’s a staggering 92.3-percent kill rate. In November alone, the Hawks are 19-of-20 on the penalty kill.
For comparison’s sake, the last-place New Jersey Devils have surrendered 21 power-play goals for a 70-percent clip. Interestingly enough, the Devils had the best PK in the league last year at 86.4 percent — another example of how fickle special teams can be.
And as the Hawks learned in 2013, when a stellar PK masked a struggling power play, it can be the difference between winning and losing.
“It’s definitely one of the big factors for winning hockey games,” goaltender Corey Crawford said.
Part of the problem last season was the departure of Michael Frolik, who joined with Kruger in 2013 to form arguably the league’s top penalty-killing tandem. Without Frolik, Kruger went through a revolving door of partners last year, including Joakim Nordstrom, Michal Handzus, Ben Smith and Brandon Saad. Eventually, they found their footing and climbed up to 19th in the league (81.4 percent) by the end of the season.
“We just got off to such a poor start that it was a huge hole just to get back to respectability,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “The last 60 games and the playoffs, it was very consistent. Other than short blip to start the year last year, it’s been pretty good [since the 2013 season].”
Having gone through their growing pains last year, Smith and Saad are now savvy, experienced killers. Smith is Kruger’s primary partner now, and Saad sees time with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. As a result, the Hawks are starting to resemble that aggressive, proactive, point-pressuring unit that dominated throughout the 2013 run to the Stanley Cup, rather than the hesitant, reactive group from last season.
“I think guys are more comfortable with each other now,” Saad said. “Getting a chance to play together more allows you to pay more attention to detail. I don’t think too much has changed in our systems, it’s just having the right feel out there and paying attention to details. It’s big to start hot, too. It gives you that confidence and that momentum.”
It’ll be difficult to maintain this current pace. No team has ever killed 90 percent or more for a full season (the 2011-12 Devils hold the record at 89.6). Now that the season’s almost a quarter over, every team has plenty of video to use for scouting. So it only gets harder from here.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Kruger said. “Other teams’ power plays get better as the season goes on, and they’re going to see what we do. It goes both ways. They do their homework. But if we do our homework and work harder than they do, we’re going to have the advantage. We just need to get better and better.”
NOTE: The Hawks recalled Nordstrom and offensive-minded defenseman and power-play specialist Adam Clendening on Tuesday. They also reassigned Stephen Johns to Rockford. Johns was called up on Monday to maximize the amount of salary-cap relief the Hawks would get by placing Trevor van Riemsdyk on long-term injured reserve.