Blackhawks’ penalty kill confounding Golden Knights’ power play by taking away prime scoring areas

The Hawks’ penalty kill is a perfect 9-for-9 in the series because their collapsing style has worked perfectly.

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The Blackhawks have been defensively porous overall against the Golden Knights, but not so much when on the penalty kill.

The Blackhawks have been defensively porous overall against the Golden Knights, but not so much when on the penalty kill.

Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

At even strength, the Blackhawks have largely failed to stop the Golden Knights from creating scoring chances at will. It’s a big reason why they trail this best-of-seven playoff series 3-1 and again face elimination in Game 5 on Tuesday night.

But oddly, on the penalty kill, the Hawks have strategized brilliantly against the Knights’ attack.

The Hawks’ penalty kill is 9-for-9 in the series. It has killed 14 consecutive power plays since Game 4 of the previous series against the Oilers.

“Everyone’s doing a great job,” coach Jeremy Colliton said Monday. “We’ve talked about getting clears, making sure we get the puck 200 feet down every time we get a chance. The biggest thing is winning battles around the net on loose pucks, rebounds, those types of things.”

The penalty kill was a pleasant surprise during the regular season, but against the Oilers’ top-ranked power play, it struggled at first. The Oilers scored three power-play goals in Game 1 and one each in Games 2 and 3.

“The Edmonton series, we weren’t happy with how we started,” Hawks forward Ryan Carpenter said. “We were doing a lot of things right, but we were just focusing on just getting better, whether we were having the results or not. It’s starting to show a little bit.”

A little bit? More like blatantly.

The Knights boasted a formidable power play of their own in the regular season — ranking ninth in the NHL — by prioritizing quantity over quality. Per minute on the power play, they led the league in shot attempts while the Oilers led in scoring chances.

But in the postseason, the Hawks’ penalty-kill tactics have caused that fire-at-will tendency to backfire on the Knights. Their power play is blasting 2.17 shot attempts per minute against the Hawks, higher than their regular-season average, but is generating only 0.71 scoring chances per minute, well below their regular-season average. Doing the math, just 32.5% of the Knights’ power-play shot attempts have been scoring chances, far below the league average of 51.6%.

In other words, the Hawks are letting the Knights shoot aplenty but ensuring those shots are mostly low-danger opportunities. 

They’re doing so by passively collapsing to the slot and the crease, forming castle-like protections around the center of the ice — and exclusively the center of the ice.

With all four Hawks penalty-killers concentrated so densely, the Knights can’t find lanes for dangerous cross-seam passes and can’t maneuver their own men to get open in the slot. 

Without a game-breaking talent like the Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl to force the Hawks to open things up — the downside of the Knights’ deep, balanced roster — the Knights have mostly resorted to shots from the blue line and faceoff circles, which Hawks goalie Corey Crawford can read and save easily. 

Carpenter avoided discussing those specific strategies Monday, saying he didn’t “want to give away too much.” He emphasized the penalty-kill unit’s confidence instead, saying they’re “trying not to get too high and just trying to stay even-keel.”

But with the “trying not to get too high” comment, he might as well have been talking about the Hawks’ penalty kill strategies nonetheless. That’s exactly what it seems the Hawks have done with their penalty-kill forward duos (Carpenter-Jonathan Toews and David Kampf-Brandon Saad). They’ve let the Knights’ power play enter the zone and move around in it relatively freely, but locked down the region where the power play could really do damage.

“Eventually you’re going to give up some shots,” Carpenter said. “You try to limit it as much as you can and stick to the details: getting your clears and being in shot lanes, and really making them have to generate chances.”

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