Penalty-kill continues to be the Blackhawks’ killer weakness

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Marian Hossa tries to control the puck after falling to the ice Monday night. (Getty Images)

Michael Frolik wouldn’t go so far as to say he was rooting for the Blackhawks to take penalties back in the dream season of 2013. But he wasn’t exactly upset by them, either.

Every trip, every hook, every elbow and every bit of interference was a chance for Frolik and Marcus Kruger — the Batman and Robin of the Blackhawks’ penalty kill — to hop over the boards and do what they do best. They weren’t just confident, they were borderline arrogant. Every penalty put the dynamic duo in the spotlight, and they relished every one of them.

“It was our main job at that time, and we were excited to go on the ice and kill for the team,” Frolik said Monday morning from the visitors’ dressing room at the United Center. “When you can help the team like that, it’s always nice. You feel like you’re a part of it, and it’s big.”

The vibe is a lot different on the Hawks bench these days. Every penalty feels like a goal against before the puck even drops. The confidence is completely shot. Even penalty-killing stalwarts such as Kruger and Duncan Keith are getting burned game after game after game.

If ever the Hawks were going to get their confidence — and maybe even their mojo — back, it was going to be Monday night against the Calgary Flames, who have been as awful on the power play as the Hawks have been on the PK. Yet the Flames, 1-of-25 with the man-advantage entering the game, scored 39 seconds into each of their first two power plays and went on to win 3-2 when Kris Versteeg scored the lone goal of a seven-round shootout.

At the point of the Flames’ second power-play goal of the night, the Hawks had given up an unconscionable 14 goals on 23 opposing power plays. For some perspective, that 2013 team gave up just 18 power-play goals in 141 chances.

“Just seems no matter what, it finds a way, a different way, every time,” Joel Quenneville said.

“It just seems to find its way to the back of the net if we just make one little mistake,”Jonathan Toews said.

A strong penalty kill can mask a lot of other problems. It’s no coincidence that the Hawks’ had elite PKs in both 2013 and 2015, and struggled last season.

“I don’t know what’s going on there right now, but I remember we just had a great structure and we just always were on the same page,” Frolik said. “Everybody knew what we were doing on the ice. Me and Krugs, we just talked a lot about it. Every time, we knew wherever the puck is, what we should do and what position we should be in. We did a pretty good job. It was working. And after you kill a few, you’re building confidence, and that’s a big part of it, too. We kind of built that that year, and it was something special.”

On the bright side, the Hawks did kill three straight penalties — including a double-minor for high-sticking by Tyler Motte, who has been paired with Kruger on the top PK unit — after giving up the two quick power-play goals. The first successful kill of the night was met with mock cheers from the frustrated crowd. Any progress, no matter how small, no matter how weak the opponent, is encouraging at this point.

“We had better pressure, we won some faceoffs, had better clears, didn’t give them easy entries, [and had] more puck pursuit when it was time,” Quenneville said.

The Flames started the scoring at 4:51 of the first, 39 seconds after Motte took a tripping penalty. Corey Crawford stopped Dougie Hamilton’s shot from the point, but both Micheal Ferland and Sam Bennett got behind Keith in the goalmouth, and Bennett nudged the puck across the goal line.

Patrick Kane tied it up after Flames defenseman Deryk England’s ghastly turnover basically handed the puck to Artem Anisimov, who sent a cross-ice pass that Kane one-timed past Brian Elliott at 1:32 of the second period. Anisimov now has four goals and five assists in seven games.

But a Richard Panik roughing penalty five minutes later led to a Sean Monahan power-play goal 39 seconds later, again on a rebound off a Mark Giordano shot from the top of the circle. The Hawks killed off the next three, though, staying within striking distance until Brian Campbell’s centering pass went in off of Flames defenseman T.J. Brodie’s stick to tie the game at 2-2.

Crawford was again spectacular in 5-on-5 play, including huge stops on Kris Versteeg and Johnny Gaudreau, among others, and has allowed just three even-strength goals all season. Former Blues goalie Brian Elliott matched him down the stretch, including a skate-blade save on Panik in the dying seconds that sent the game to overtime.

“He’s playing great,” Kane said of Crawford. “You feel bad that we’re not doing much in front of him and helping him get some wins. We have to play better in front of him, that’s for sure.”

NOTE: Rookie defenseman Gustav Forsling left the game early in the second after being hit face-first along the glass and did not return. Quenneville said he was “day to day” with an upper-body injury.


Twitter: @markazerus

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