It’s still a couple weeks off, but help is on the way for the Blackhawks’ struggling penalty kill.
Marcus Kruger, who fractured his left wrist Dec. 17 against Edmonton, practiced with the Hawks on Sunday at the United Center for the first time since sustaining the injury. Kruger, 25, hasn’t been cleared for contact, but is expected to return during a four-game road trip at the end of the month.
“I would think in or around that time, whether it’s during that [trip] or at the end of it, for sure, we’re thinking [he’ll play],” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Getting him into practice was a big step for us. Once we get the clearance for contact, I think we’ll get a better idea. Then he’d be close to playing.”
If Kruger does return on that trip, it will be a quicker recovery than the estimated four months initially cited Dec. 18, when surgery was performed to repair the fracture. Based on the Hawks’ porous penalty kill, Kruger can’t return fast enough.
Prior to his injury, the Blackhawks killed off 82.4 percent of their shorthanded situations through the first 33 games, a solid number. They’ve killed just 71.9 percent in 36 games without him and have allowed at least one power-play goal in 12 of 16 games since the All-Star break.
“That’s his niche,” Quenneville said. “I think he takes big pride in that, in the preparation and focus and the attention to detail. It’s what he’s all about. That’s basically his strength and we rely on that a lot. When you miss it, it’s almost like when you take a penalty, it’s like you’re almost holding your breath … and we haven’t had that problem too much around here.”
Marian Hossa, another strong penalty-killer, returned from a nine-game injury absence Friday in Dallas, a 5-2 loss. Getting Kruger back will be just as important to the PK effort.
“Right now, we’re a little gun-shy in that area, and I think that’s where we’ve got to get comfortable, knowing that, hey, we’re going to have to take penalties and we’re going to have to kill them,” Quenneville said.
For now, Kruger is happy just to practice again. Initially there were doubts whether he’d return at all prior to the playoffs. Now, he’s expected to play at least a handful of games.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s been tough,” Kruger said. “Some days were worse than others, but I’ve been trying to take it day-by-day and do everything I need to do to get back as soon as possible.”
It’s been a good week for Kruger, who signed a three-year contract extension Mar. 8 for $9.25 million. Despite no goals, one assist and a minus-5 rating this season, Kruger’s contributions to the past two Stanley Cup title runs and other assets prompted the offer.
The Blackhawks tried to hammer out the deal last summer, when Kruger was a restricted free agent, but couldn’t create enough salary-cap space.
“I hoped it would happen this summer,” Kruger said. “I tried to be patient and I’m thankful that they signed me here, even if I was injured and didn’t play my best hockey before that. I’m really thankful for that.”
NOTES: Artem Anismov practiced Sunday after missing most of the third period in Dallas with an apparent shoulder issue. Quenneville said Anisimov is fine.
Defensemen Duncan Keith and Michal Rozsival sat out practice, but only Rozsival’s availability is in doubt. Keith is expected to play, while Rozsival’s lower-body injury will be re-evaluated at the morning skate.
Corey Crawford will get the start in net.