Marcus Kruger, special teams fueling Blackhawks’ late-season run
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Given the choice of a strong power play or penalty kill in the postseason, you’d probably be better off with the effective PK. A successful penalty kill often generates energy and momentum, especially at home. And you can also score on the penalty kill.
As fate would have it, the Blackhawks have both special teams going in their mad dash toward a long-shot chance at getting home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Their penalty kill is 19-for-19 in six games since Marcus Kruger returned from a dislocated wrist — and the Hawks have won five of those games. And the formidable power play has snapped out of an 0-for-26 slump — 6-for-12 in victories over the Jets, Bruins and Coyotes.
In their 6-2 victory over the Coyotes on Tuesday night, the Hawks scored three power-play goals in the second period — one by Patrick Kane and two by Andrew Ladd — to take a 5-0 lead. Ladd’s goals — a deflection of a shot by Trevor van Riemsdyk and a nifty move in front off a pass from Kane — came on a five-minute boarding call against former Hawk Antoine Vermette.
The Hawks won 5-of-6 faceoffs on those power plays that produced goals — including 4-of-4 on the two-minute penalties.
“It was nice,” Hawks center Jonathan Toews said. “We had good movement. We were able to keep them in their zone for a long time and at a certain points something’s going to give. I think they were pretty tired at the end of those two shifts where we ended up scoring goals.”
It remains to be seen if the Hawks can sustain their power-play prowess — the Coyotes’ penalty kill ranks 28th in the NHL. But the Hawks’ recently couldn’t score with a man advantage against anybody — 0-for-26 in a nine-game stretch prior to Artemi Panarin’s power-play goal against the Jets last Friday. The Hawks still rank second in the NHL in power-play percentage (22.9).
Possession, of course, is a big factor.
“It was nice to see that confidence that we can create chances, but especially get the puck back after those initial shots,” Toews said. “[When] you look at our special teams, it always seems to reflect the way we’re playing 5-on-5 and it did again [against the Coyotes].”
“We’re just trying to move the puck around, not have one guy hold it too long and just find those seems,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said. “If it doesn’t seem like anything’s opening up, there’s nothing wrong with getting pucks to the net. We have some big bodies there and can make some plays off shots — whether it’s tipping it in or banging a rebound home. When the plays are there, make them. We’ve got the guys that really know how to make them.”
Kruger’s return has fortified a struggling penalty kill. The Hawks were in a 38-for-56 rut (67.9 percent) in 18 games before Kruger’s return. There’s still a lot to prove — three of the six teams they’ve faced rank in the bottom 10 in power play. Only the Wild (14th) and the Bruins (seventh) ranked in the upper half. And the Hawks only had to kill one penalty against the Bruins.
But a specialist such as Kruger makes a difference. When he and Michael Frolik were on the penalty kill unit in 2012-13, the Hawks were third in the league in the regular season (87.2) and excellent in the playoffs (90.7) en route to the Stanley Cup.
“I think he takes pride in not the statistics, but doing the right things,” coach Joel Quenneville said, “and being aware of what we’re trying to do … and very diligent on the little details that are part of being successful on that unit.”
Kruger was penalized twice against the Coyotes. But on the first one, the Hawks not only killed the penalty but scored when Jonathan Toews turned a steal into a breakaway goal.
“He took a couple of penalties that [put us in a position where] we’re missing a guy we want out there, so he has to stay away from that,” Quenneville said. “But other than that, [we have] a real appreciation for how he can help and improve our PK.”
Penalty kill, like so much of hockey is all about focus and the Hawks — from Kruger on down — seem to have regained their focus in the home stretch. Thursday night’s game against the Blues — who rank third in the NHL in penalty killing and fifth in power-play percentage — will be a much bigger test.
“When things get bad enough, you focus on it enough and make it your goal to improve on whatever’s going wrong,” Toews said. “Obviously, penalty kill was a glaring issue for a while and not only our ranking in the league, but it was hurting us in games. It could have made a difference and we know that this time of year and in the playoffs, it’s a huge deal for us defensively.
“We need to have that confidence we can kill off penalties and be tough on teams and not give them any energy. I think everyone’s responding to it.”