Blackhawks turn up pressure on penalty kill to no avail

After finishing last in the league in penalty-kill rate last season, the Hawks have made some schematic adjustments but struggled again Thursday against the Sharks.

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The Blackhawks’ penalty kill has allowed three goals through two games despite some schematic changes intended to fortify the unit.

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The Blackhawks spent a huge portion of Wednesday’s practice, their last before a stretch of three games in five days, working on special teams.

It was a full-blown, half-rink scrimmage, at game-level intensity, in five-on-four and five-on-three situations. The power-play units benefitted from the time, but this was really about the penalty kill.

“Reps,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “Just get reps.”

The Hawks must make use of every minute possible to improve the penalty kill, whose 72.7 percent success rate last season ranked last in the NHL and was the worst by any team in 30 years. It has struggled again in two games this season.

They’re hoping some schematic changes, predicated on increased aggressiveness in puck pursuit and tighter-to-man positioning, can accomplish that.

“Some pressure cues, we’re doing a little bit different,” forward Brandon Saad said Thursday. “PKs don’t change too much, but I think just pressuring in certain areas.”

“You have to notice times when you can pressure because you don’t want to give teams too much time,” defenseman Olli Maatta added. “When you get them on the run, that’s the best way to kill.”

A film review of the first two games of 2019-20 and the final games of 2018-19 reveals a few specific alterations in the Hawks’ short-handed D-zone coverage.

When the puck is at the point, the Hawks are pushing the high forward in their diamond-shape formation even higher, having him not merely follow the puck but actively engage and stick-check opponents, even at the blue line.

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And when the puck is on the half-wall, the Hawks are applying dual pressure — pushing their near-side defenseman out to the faceoff dot and dropping the high forward down to, yet again, engage the man.

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The Hawks seem more willing to leave the opposing power play’s net-front man alone and be less mindful of the far-side winger in order to attack the puck and force the issue.

The idea is that a power play, given its man advantage, will always be able to find an open man when provided ample time, regardless of how airtight the off-puck defensive coverage is. So the Hawks hope this new aggressiveness will restrict that time.

“If you give the top power-play unit time and space in the offensive zone with the puck, they’re going to find something . . . so we’d like to limit that as much as we can,” Colliton said. “Yeah, they have five, we have four, so they’re going to get some looks here and there, but we’d like it to be less.”

The coaching staff also has turned to some new faces to execute the new strategies.

Maatta and Ryan Carpenter received the first- and third-most penalty-kill time, respectively, in the season opener against the Flyers. The Hawks would’ve been 3-for-3 in kills if not for a fluky own-goal bounce off Slater Koekkoek, and Colliton said he thought his PK units did well overall.

After all, there’s a belief component to penalty-killing that matters arguably just as much as the system aspect.

The game Thursday against the Sharks didn’t go well, however. The Hawks allowed two power-play goals in the first period alone. Clearly, regardless of the adjustments, the penalty kill needs more practice — and perhaps more confidence.

“There’s many ways to get a kill,” Maatta said. “A lot of teams do it a different way and have success, so it’s not necessarily about what you do. You’ve just got to know what other guys are doing and trust each other.”

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