WINNIPEG, Manitoba — How did the NHL’s worst penalty kill in 30 years grow into an above-average unit in one year?
Ryan Carpenter is a big part of the answer.
Carpenter, the Blackhawks’ overlooked summer free-agent -addition, has proved to be a surprisingly versatile and notable part of this team even at even strength, centering Patrick Kane a fair amount.
But on the penalty kill, he has been pretty close to a savior.
The 29-year-old center has averaged 2 minutes, 26 seconds of 4-on-5 ice time per game, ranking 14th among all forwards. He’s also by far the Hawks’ team leader in that category.
“Previously on PKs, I would only play once, [because] we’d probably rotate six to eight guys,” Carpenter said Sunday. “Seems like we play four or five or six guys a night now, at least on the forward side, so sometimes I start it and go back out there again, maybe play a minute on the PK.”
“You get in such a rhythm, you’re not really thinking — and sometimes when you’re overthinking, that’s when you make mistakes. When you can just get in a groove, your instincts take over.”
Carpenter was used as a penalty killer with the Golden Knights, his former team, but not nearly to this extent.
With the Hawks, he has become the de facto leader of the PK, and his arrival has coincided with the unit’s incredible turnaround: from 31st in the league last year with a pathetic 72.7 percent kill rate, to an 81.7 percent kill rate and No. 12 ranking this season.
Before Sunday’s game, Carpenter broke down the strategies the unit has employed so successfully,
“It starts with coaching and them relaying the game plan, and us just communicating how we want to take away every team’s certain weapons,” he said. “That’s what you’re trying to usually focus on: you want to limit their touches and make other guys find a way to beat you.”
“Sometimes it’s a guy on the point. Sometimes it’s a guy in that [Alex] Ovechkin spot with a heck of a one-timer, like [Patrik] Laine tonight. Sometimes there are guys on the ‘pop,’ in that middle spot. Sometimes it’s a net-front guy. It changes every night who their top guys are, but you want to just do a good job of pressuring them and being detailed.”
Carpenter was also keen to note that the Hawks have their two goaltenders to thank for their PK improvement: Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford’s combined .883 short-handed save percentage ranks fifth among the 31 teams.
Adding to the tactical complexity is that Lehner prefers clean sight lines toward the shots headed his way.
So the Hawks have structured their PK around that, too.
Despite conceding the 12th-fewest shot attempts per minute of 4-on-5 play, they let 58.7 percent of those attempts end up on goal, the seventh-highest rate in the league.
“He may want a shot to come from a certain area, so we make sure we keep it to the outside or make sure we do a good job of boxing out,” Carpenter said. “Sometimes you give up shots but they’re not as harmful as a grade-A shot in front of the net.”
The PK has admittedly dipped over the last couple of weeks, in tune with the team’s overall performance.
Entering Sunday, the Hawks had killed just 15 of 21 opponent opportunities, a 71.4 percent rate, over the last six games.
That’s basically the rate at which they played all of 2018-19, though.
That it’s now seen as a dip says a lot about the Hawks’ out-of-the-blue confidence and quality on the penalty-killing unit.