More Robin Lehner starts in goal might be key to fixing Blackhawks’ penalty kill
Lehner has stopped an incredible 24 of 25 shots while shorthanded this season. And that’s not far out of line with his career trend.
On paper, the Blackhawks’ penalty kill — even after a 3-for-3 outing in a much-needed win Sunday over the Kings — remains in bad shape.
The Hawks have killed 22 of 30 power plays, a 73.3 percent success rate that ranks 26th in the NHL. It’s barely better than their rate last year of 72.7 percent, which was the worst full-season performance by any team in three decades.
But there’s a clear trend of when the Hawks’ penalty kill is respectable, like it was Sunday, and when it’s not. And it’s determined by the starting goalie.
Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford have started five games each. Lehner has made 24 saves on 25 shots while short-handed, a .960 save percentage that tops his (still solid) .928 even-strength save percentage. Crawford, while virtually identical to Lehner at even strength (.929), has stopped only 10 of 17 shots while short-handed for a .588 save percentage.
Whether those differences are because of a small sample size, luck, their caliber of play or the play of the penalty-kill units is unclear. The answer is probably a mixture of all three.
Certainly, sample size is playing a role. There’s no way Crawford continues to stop fewer than 60 percent of the short-handed shots he faces.
On the other hand, labeling Lehner an excellent penalty-kill goaltender and Crawford a mediocre one can be supported with their career data — even from Crawford’s multiple-Cup-winning prime.
Lehner’s career short-handed save percentage (over 270 games) is .894. Crawford’s is .869, which is in line with the league average.
Narrowing the query to high-danger scoring chances while short-handed, Lehner’s career save percentage is .807, whereas Crawford’s is .758. The league average is .781.
Clearly, there’s something Lehner — the hulking 6-4, 240-pound Hawks newcomer, whose previous career statistics span stints with the Senators, Sabres and Islanders — does differently on the penalty kill.
There’s also something logical to the idea that the Hawks’ penalty-kill units play more effectively in front of Lehner.
His size affords him the ability to play deeper in net and be less exposed by deflections and cross-ice passes, two events that occur much more frequently in five-on-four than in five-on-five situations. That frees up the penalty kill to play more aggressively and pressure the puck toward the perimeter of the defensive zone, rather than collapse passively to protect the crease.
One way or another, improving the PK will be crucial for the Hawks as they enter their second 10-game segment of the season.
They’ll need quite a bit more than six points out of this next portion to stay within striking distance of the playoff line, and doing so won’t be easy, with a four-game trip — beginning Tuesday in Nashville — to start off.
Coach Jeremy Colliton has rewarded Lehner lately for his strong play, starting him in three of the last four games. For the sake of the penalty kill’s viability, continuing that pattern would be a wise move.