Familiar struggles, familiar solutions for Blackhawks’ power play

Brandon Saad didn’t forget the talking points after two years away. Asked about the Blackhawks’ sputtering power play, the script came right back to him.

“We’re getting a little too fancy at times and trying to create too much when we could just shoot pucks,” Saad said. “For us, it’s just simplifying it. When you have so much talent, sometimes you just try to do too much.”

Go to the net. Screen the goalie. Fight for rebounds. Same suggestions, different year.

It’s hockey season, which means it’s also Hawks-struggling-on-the-power-play season. It’s an annual rite of fall (and winter and spring) for the Hawks to put together an all-star power-play unit and have little to show for it. Since the 2011-12 season, the Hawks have finished 19th or worse in power-play percentage four times. They’re sitting at 21st, with a meager four goals in 27 opportunities.

Brandon Saad (right), Richard Panik and Jonathan Toews are all together on one of the Blackhawks power-play units. But they've had more success at 5-on-5 than on the power play. (Getty Images)

It hasn’t always mattered that much. They were 16th in 2009-10, 19th in 2012-13 and 20th in 2014-15 and went on to win the Stanley Cup each time. And in the two seasons the Hawks had a dynamic power play — fourth in 2010-11 and second in 2015-16 — they lost in the first round of the playoffs. If the Hawks have shown anything over the years, it’s that a killer penalty kill is more important in the postseason than a powerful power play.

Of course, it never hurts to be productive with the man advantage. With that in mind, coach Joel Quenneville has been switching up the units and the systems in an effort to find the right mix. At practice Tuesday, a struggling Artem Anisimov wasn’t on either power-play unit, with Nick Schmaltz returning to the unit.

On one unit, Quenneville is going with the increasingly popular four-forwards, one-defenseman style, with Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp on the points. On the other unit, Quenneville is going with a 1-3-1 style, with Duncan Keith manning the blue line and four forwards down low. 

Goals would be great. But Quenneville just wants some sustained offensive-zone time, instead of watching helplessly as the Hawks repeatedly chase the puck down to their own end.

“When the power play is rolling, you’re in the zone, you’re creating chances, you’ve got the other teams on their heels — whether you’re scoring or not,” Quenneville said. “Eventually, you’re going to score with the quality of zone time and looks. . . . We’ve got the personnel to move it around, and [we’ll] find some guys who have a little more continuity with one another.”

Patrick Kane echoed those thoughts. A lousy power play can give the opponent a boost, while stunting the offensive momentum that might have led to drawing a penalty in the first place.

“The biggest thing on the power play is we want to gain some momentum, or at least keep the momentum we have and not give it back to the opposing team on the penalty kill,“ Kane said. “That comes with working harder — battling for pucks and playing like it’s a five-on-five mentality. After that, just let our hockey instincts and skill take over.”

Quenneville will continue tinkering with the makeup of the units, and there are always opponent-specific tweaks to make and set plays to work on. But when it comes down to it, it goes back to that all-too-familiar script the Hawks have been reciting for years.

“More of the boring quotes that we’re going to give you,” Sharp said. “That’s what works — quick puck movement, more shots, traffic to the net. We feel like we’re entering the zone OK, but we’re breaking out too many times. We’re not sustaining pressure and generating a whole lot of scoring chances. I’m sure we’ll talk a lot about getting pucks to the net, screening the goalie and getting second chances.”

It won’t be the first time. And if history is any indication, it won’t be the last, either.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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