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Blackhawks refresh penalty kill after poor December results

The Hawks have allowed 13 goals on 33 opponent power plays since Thanksgiving, a weakness they’re hoping to fix in January.

Connor Murphy and the rest of the Blackhawks have struggled with penalty killing recently.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Usually when the Blackhawks practice penalty-killing, it’s a byproduct of practicing the power play. Even though both units are on the ice getting reps, the emphasis is clearly on the latter.

That wasn’t the case Monday, though, as the Hawks ran a lengthy drill, working specifically on the penalty kill. They used all of their normal PK personnel and operated over the full length of the ice, letting the PK work on its neutral-zone structure and denying entries at the blue line as well as its in-zone defense.

“You forget about those things, right?” interim coach Derek King said. “You always go and you practice power play, and half of your PK guys are on the power play, so they don’t get to actually work on it. We really just wanted to focus on simplifying this PK, breaking it down for them again. And we’ll just keep on working on it.”

“It’s always nice as a penalty killer to do that, where you know guys’ minds are strictly on that,” defenseman Connor Murphy said. “It’s hard sometimes where we have plenty of guys who play both units . . . so they’re trying to work on both sides in one practice. Today was good to focus on that side of it and get everyone feeling those reps.”

In addition to the on-ice practice, the Hawks’ killers also have spent some time this week reviewing video with defense-oriented assistant coach Marc Crawford.

That’s far from the only thing they’ve reviewed — this week has become like a miniature training camp — but it certainly has been an emphasis. They’ve examined and refreshed their tactics regarding every tiny aspect of the penalty kill.

“[We’ve talked about] pressuring down the ice — when to go, when not to go,” King said. “In the neutral zone, what we’re doing, what our responsibilities [are]. And then especially in the D-zone, not getting seamed, not getting up too high. Everybody’s on the same page and running our routes. [It’s the] exact same thing we do with our power play, but you never really work on your PK. Obviously ours has been struggling a little bit, so we needed to work on it.”

The Hawks’ kill endured a rough stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In those 11 games — their most recent 11 games — they conceded 13 goals on 33 opportunities, a 39.4% conversion rate for opposing power plays. They also allowed 1.98 shots and 1.05 scoring chances per minute during that span, ranking 32nd and 24th, respectively, in the NHL.

The last four games were particularly bad, with eight power play goals allowed on 19 opportunities. After the Stars went 3-for-8 against the Hawks in what turned out to be their last game before the pause, King admitted they had adjusted their PK forechecking strategy slightly that night to no avail.

“You’re killing against good teams that have decent-or-better power plays, and one guy is maybe missing [his mark] by a foot here or a foot there or a bad stick is not in the right spot, and it’s in the back of our net,” he said.

That comment, as well as the full-rink PK practice Monday, suggests the Hawks might employ a more aggressive killing approach in January. It seems like a worthwhile plan.

“It does happen sometimes when you’re struggling, letting up goals,” Murphy said Monday. “Your natural tendency is to sink and defend passively in certain areas on the ice. [We’re] going back to being comfortable with our routes and pressuring and getting on top of their guys, whether it’s in the neutral zone or as they’re entering [the zone] — to make them have to dump it in, and we can out-battle to get clears. That’s a big key.”