Blackhawks’ improved penalty kill riding 17-for-17 streak
A struggle for much of the season, the Hawks’ penalty kill finally has found its groove in the last seven games — even as the team’s playoff hopes have slipped away.
In their last seven games, the Blackhawks have allowed more shots on goal per minute at even strength than on the penalty kill.
That’s a mind-boggling statistic in any circumstance, but it is even more unbelievable when considering the Hawks had one of the NHL’s worst penalty kills before this stretch.
Even as the Hawks’ playoff hopes slowly have slipped away — their odds dropped to around 2% after their loss Friday to the Predators — the penalty kill has emerged as a late-season bright spot.
‘‘That’s definitely a positive as we play the big games,’’ coach Jeremy Colliton said last week. ‘‘The special teams are a big part of it. So [while the] power play hasn’t been as good lately, the PK has picked up the slack in a lot of ways.’’
Since March 24, the Hawks have killed 29 of 32 power plays, a turnaround that has boosted their season kill rate to a more respectable 76.5% (25th in the league). And in the last seven games, they’re a perfect 17-for-17 on the penalty kill, including 9-for-9 in the three-game series last week against the Predators.
Assistant coach Sheldon Brookbank, who oversees the penalty kill, drew up an effective game plan to neutralize the Predators’ power play, defenseman Connor Murphy said Friday.
Much of the Predators’ strategy is designed to set up Eeli Tolvanen for shots from the left-side faceoff circle — Tolvanen burned the Hawks doing that April 3 — so the Hawks made sure to keep a close watch on him last week.
The two times Tolvanen got the puck with space on power plays Friday, Murphy closed quickly on him, deflecting one shot away and giving him no space to try the second time.
‘‘We continued to look at video, and [Brookbank] does a great job of showing us things every day to get ready and match up against certain teams,’’ Murphy said. ‘‘They wanted [defenseman Roman] Josi to have a lot of shots and get it over to Tolvanen to shoot. So we were able to take away a lot of those chances from them. It’s important for the kill to be going to push momentum.’’
Forwards David Kampf and Ryan Carpenter and defensemen Murphy and Duncan Keith have been the Hawks’ No. 1 penalty-kill unit for much of the season, and that hasn’t changed.
But with forwards Mattias Janmark and Carl Soderberg now gone and defenseman Calvin de Haan injured occasionally recently, the Hawks have turned to forwards Kirby Dach and Alex DeBrincat and defenseman Riley Stillman to bolster the No. 2 unit.
The result has been immense improvement. Through the Hawks’ first 41 games, their penalty kill allowed 1.65 shot attempts and 0.85 scoring chances per minute — 25th and 22nd, respectively, in the league. In the last seven games, the Hawks’ penalty kill has allowed 1.07 shot attempts and 0.53 scoring chances per minute — second in the league in both categories.
The Hawks also have been better at blocking opponents’ shots or forcing them wide, lowering the on-goal percentage from 61.1% before to 47.1% lately. (As mentioned earlier, the result is they’ve allowed 0.50 shots on goal per minute on the penalty kill versus 0.54 at even strength.)
The sample size is small, and the turnaround happened too late to make a difference in the standings. But the Hawks can ‘‘take pride’’ — in Murphy’s words — in perhaps fixing one of their bigger weaknesses this season.