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With first unit struggling, Blackhawks’ second unit keeping power play among NHL’s best

The Hawks have had at least one unit rolling at every point this season, boosting the power play to No. 2 in the league.

Philipp Kurashev’s power-play goal Wednesday was the Blackhawks’ 18th power-play goal of the season.
Philipp Kurashev’s power-play goal Wednesday was the Blackhawks’ 18th power-play goal of the season.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Blackhawks’ plan to use different strategies for their two power-play units has worked brilliantly.

When the first unit is clicking, it has been deadly. And when the first unit can’t get set up, the no-nonsense second unit has picked up the slack.

As a result, roughly one-third through the season, the Hawks lead the NHL in power-play goals (18) and rank second in power-play conversion rate (32.7%) and eighth in scoring chances per minute of power-play time (0.88).

“It’s good for us to work on it in practice, even when things are going well, just to keep building,” Patrick Kane said Wednesday. “But we’re pretty happy with where we’re at this year. We have two good units that are helping to produce and get that number up there as far as our power-play ranking.”

Coach Jeremy Colliton’s plan since the start of training camp was for the first unit to operate relatively normally for a power play: enter the offensive zone, set up a cycle and remain patient until a chance unfolds.

“They’re trying to have more movement, interchanges, different players moving in different positions to create mismatches and passing lanes,” he said Jan. 8.

The second unit treats its shifts as if it were at even strength: attack off the rush when possible, only cycle when necessary and don’t risk turnovers. It just has the extra man while doing it.

Through the first 10 games, the first unit — anchored by Kane and Alex DeBrincat roaming by the faceoff circles — excelled. It scored seven goals and produced 1.01 scoring chances per minute. Dylan Strome down low, Andrew Shaw in the middle “rover” spot and Adam Boqvist up top were able to feed Kane and DeBrincat.

The second unit played far less — about nine minutes, versus 39 minutes for the first unit — and produced only 0.56 scoring chances per minute, scoring three goals.

But Boqvist’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Shaw’s concussion and Strome’s recent drop-off eventually disrupted the first unit’s chemistry. In the last eight games, that unit’s scoring-chance rate has fallen to 0.79 per minute and has scored only three times.

The second unit has picked up all of the slack, though. In those eight games, not only has its ice time increased — up to 15 minutes, versus 31 for the first unit — but so has its scoring-chance creation (up to 0.93 per minute), leading to five goals. Dominik Kubalik, Philipp Kurashev and Mattias Janmark all have scored.

Blackhawks power play scoring chances per minute

First PP unit Second PP unit
First PP unit Second PP unit
First 10 games 1.01 0.56
Last 8 games 0.79 0.93

“We have two really good units,” Kurashev said after his beautiful power-play tally Wednesday. “Our unit ... we just try to outwork the other guys and try to attack right away when we have the chance.”

Kurashev’s goal ended a streak of two games without a power-play goal, the Hawks’ first such “drought” this year. On the other hand, their penalty kill is perfect in eight of the last nine games, keeping the special teams a net positive lately.

And Colliton hopes some changes will jump-start the first unit.

Nicolas Beaudin has become the permanent guy up top, so Boqvist was evaluated in Shaw’s old “rover” role in practice Tuesday.

“With certain guys in and out of the lineup, we’ve had to adjust personnel and things like that,” Kane said. “So you’re getting used to that a little bit. But I’m not too concerned about it.”