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Blackhawks hope to transfer special-teams lessons to fix even-strength woes

With their 10th-ranked power play and fourth-ranked penalty kill surprisingly clicking, the still-winless Hawks want to apply what’s working there to all situations.

Calvin de Haan and the Blackhawks’ penalty kill hasn’t been the problem so far.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

During the Blackhawks’ timeout in their 6-3 loss Sunday to the Red Wings — called with 7:22 left to play before seven seconds of a five-on-three power play — coach Jeremy Colliton picked up a whiteboard and handed it, still white, to his players.

They wanted to sketch out their own play.

“I don’t have all the best ideas. I’m open to coming up with something different,” Colliton said later. “They had a pretty good play they drew up. If not mistaken, it just got deflected, [Alex DeBrincat’s] one-timer there. Nothing strange about that.”

Pictures of the moment nonetheless went viral as a perceived indication of either Colliton abandoning his coaching duties or the players usurping him and coaching themselves — both of which almost certainly were overreactions. After all, because of COVID, the Hawks are missing three assistant coaches, who normally handle such minutiae during timeouts.

Also conveniently forgotten was the fact the Hawks have done well on power plays this season. In fact, they’ve done well on special teams across the board.

They finished 1-for-4 on the power play Sunday and are 6-for-22 this season, a 27.3% conversion rate that ranks 10th in the NHL. They were credited with 11 power-play scoring chances Sunday and rank fourth in the league in scoring-chance rate on the power play. They’re also fourth in shot-attempt rate, fifth in shot-on-goal rate and second in expected-goal rate.

It’s a similarly encouraging story on the penalty kill. The Hawks are 20-for-22, a 90.9% kill rate that ranks fourth in the NHL. They’ve allowed the seventh-fewest scoring chances, fourth-fewest shot attempts, ninth-fewest shots on goal and eight-fewest expected goals against per minute.

Those are remarkable results on both fronts considering how awful the Hawks have been otherwise.

They’re winless through six games for the first time since 1997 and have allowed four or more goals in six consecutive losses for the first time since 1988. At even strength, they’ve been outscored 25-6 and rank 28th in scoring-chance ratio at 45.4%.

Before practice Monday, Colliton and his (temporarily decimated) coaching staff reflected on that strange disparity and talked to the team about trying to carry over the special teams’ effectiveness to non-special scenarios.

“We’re really focused when we’re out there,” Colliton said of the “PP” and “PK” units. “We understand exactly what we’re trying to do, and the players are taking a lot of pride in the little details that make a difference.

“During five-on-five [play], it’s no different. There are details that matter, and you’ve got to do it every time. When you don’t do them, you pay the price. When you do them, you have a chance to be rewarded. [The special-teams results are] a perfect example that I believe we have good enough players here to have success as a team. We have to really bear down and be sharp with those little things.”

The Hawks shouldn’t try to transfer identical tactics — a “PK” strategy at even strength would cripple the offense; a “PP” strategy would cripple the defense — but they can learn lessons from their focus, confidence and adherence to the game plan on special teams.

“What we’ve been doing on the penalty kill [is] being annoying, get sticks in lanes and whenever you have the opportunity to get the puck out, get it down the ice,” defenseman Calvin de Haan said.

“We have to bring that ‘live to fight another day’ mentality to five-on-five play, to be honest. Sometimes it’s good to win by taking a pound of flesh or [inflicting] death by 1,000 paper cuts versus going for that knockout blow all the time.”