Blackhawks’ penalty kill success as much about will as technique

Look, nobody was happy to see Connor Murphy on his hands and knees, gasping for breath, in absolute agony after taking a Conor Sheary shot to, well, a very sensitive area midway through the second period Saturday night in Pittsburgh.

But that doesn’t mean the Blackhawks didn’t giddily leap out of their seats a little bit on the bench when it happened, celebrating their teammate’s body-sacrificing play.

“I don’t want to say everybody’s excited because you feel for the guy,” defenseman Jan Rutta said. “But it kind of pumps you up a little bit to see that.”

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Jan Rutta applies pressure to Carolina's Justin Williams during a game in Raleigh, N.C., on Nov. 11. (AP Photo)

Murphy was fine — OK, “a little sore,” — after some time back in the dressing room. And he was hardly the only one who risked life and limb in the service of a greater good that night. That Hawks were credited with 15 blocks against the Penguins, a number that seems conservative at best. Brent Seabrook endured two painful blocks to help kill off penalties. And Pittsburgh’s ridiculously loaded power play — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang — repeatedly saw their shots disappear into the equipment of Hawks players who were sticking out skates, going down to one knee, or just flat-out diving in front of the puck.

There’s a certain lunacy that comes with diving in front of an opposing slap shot — a will that goes beyond systems and technique. And nowhere is that will more important and more evident than on the penalty kill, where relentlessness, selflessness and faith in your teammates is every bit as crucial as Xs and Os and scouting. Whether you’re risking your body by blocking a shot, or risking a scoring chance by attacking the point, the penalty-kill is as much about determination as it is about design.

“That’s what’s funny about hockey,” Murphy said. “You can look at the X’s and O’s and try to think that it’s all about that, but if you look at the overall outcome, it usually comes down to will. You talk about the game in general, and there’s a lot of systems stuff that comes into play. But systems don’t mean anything unless guys are putting in that will and effort to do everything they can within it.”

That doesn’t mean first-year assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson hasn’t made a difference since taking over the penalty-killing unit from the fired Mike Kitchen. The Hawks, hearkening back to the hyper-aggressive days of Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik in 2013, have been applying tremendous pressure at the blue line, forcing opposing power plays to chip the puck in and risk losing it during a board battle, or preventing them from entering the offensive zone entirely. And when opponents do set up in the offensive zone, the Hawks are still applying that pressure, trying to force a bad pass or a turnover that can lead to an easy clear or even a shorthanded scoring opportunity.

Samuelsson, of course, isn’t the only newcomer to the Hawks’ PK. There are about a dozen players who are seeing at least some consistent shorthanded ice time, and only four of them — Jonathan Toews, Artem Anisimov, Duncan Keith and Seabrook — killed for the Hawks last season. With that new energy has come new options, and the Hawks are sometimes making as many as four, five, even six line changes during one two-minute kill.

That leaves everyone fresh to play that high-energy style, and to hurl themselves in front of any shots that come through. Throw in the terrific play of Corey Crawford, who has a sparkling .920 save percentage shorthanded, and it’s easy to see why the Hawks have the fifth-ranked penalty-killing unit in the league, with an 84.9-percent success rate.

The Hawks have had a perfect PK night in seven of their last eight games.

“[Once] you have that trust in each other, everyone’s on the same page and we work as a unit, that all leads to doing well on the penalty kill,” Brandon Saad said. “Once you’re off page, or you get spread out, teams take advantage of it. We’re doing a good job of knowing where the play is, and helping each other.”

No matter how painful that can be.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus
Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com