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Power-play struggles more glaring than ever for Blackhawks

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Ten goals doesn’t seem like much, certainly not over the course of a long season. A few fortunate bounces here, a couple of deflections there, a cleaner whack at a rebound or two. It’s one more goal every five or six games. 

Ten goals. That’s the difference between the Blackhawks’ putrid 29th-ranked power play and a league-average power play, not an exceptional one like the Penguins and Lightning have, just a decent one. And those 10 goals might be the difference between the Hawks making or missing the playoffs.

Maybe if they had done better than 1-for-6 in a 3-2 loss to Calgary last week. Maybe if they hadn’t gone 0-for-6 in a Jan. 22 loss to the Lightning in a game that was 1-0 until the final two minutes. Maybe if they didn’t go 0-for-3 in a 2-1 loss to the Wild on Jan. 10. Or 1-for-7 in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Stars on Nov. 30. Or 0-for-6 in a 2-1 loss to the Predators on Oct. 27. Or 0-for-5 in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Oilers on Oct. 19.

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Patrick Kane has just three power-play goals this season. He had 17 two years ago. (AP Photo)

The Hawks have gone without a power-play goal 32 times this season. Seven of those games were one-goal losses. Four others were one-goal games until late in the third period. So many close losses could have been wins or overtime losses. So many four-point swings against divisional and conference opponents could have gone the other way.

“It would have been maybe a key factor early on in the year when it was really struggling,” Patrick Kane said. “Would have helped us get some wins.”

It had been marginally better lately, with a goal in three consecutive games before Saturday night’s loss to the Wild. But a failed two-minute, two-man advantage early in the Minnesota game doomed the Hawks to defeat. It was a typical Hawks power play: a whole lot of passing, not nearly enough shooting, very little net-front presence, and no second-chance opportunities.

It’s a familiar problem for the Hawks, who always have been loaded with talent but who — with occasional exceptions such as the 2015-16 season — are perennially league-average or worse on the power play. In previous seasons, it has been overcome by the Hawks’ 5-on-5 dominance, along with an elite penalty kill and terrific goaltending. But with the Hawks giving up too much at even strength, and with Corey Crawford sidelined since Christmas, the power play has become a more glaring issue than ever.

And the Hawks are every bit as baffled as everyone else.

“Obviously, with guys like Kaner and [Jonathan Toews] and those guys, we should be right up there among the best in the league on the PP,” center Nick Schmaltz said. “I don’t know. Just keep working on it, try not to look at the past, and hopefully we can be better on the power plays these last [27] games.”

The power-play deficiency has been more pronounced this year than ever. No team in the league has gotten more power-play opportunities than the Hawks — 201 through 55 games — yet 20 teams have scored more times with the man advantage. The Hawks’ miseries also come during the best power-play season in the NHL in 29 years. Teams are converting at an average of 19.89 percent, the best since the 1988-89 season. The Hawks, meanwhile, are at 15.4 percent. Only the Oilers and Blue Jackets are worse.

Coach Joel Quenneville has tried just about everything and everyone on the power play, to no avail. The Hawks have tried working the puck below the goal line or having Kane back up to the point to try to generate space and speed on the attack. But most of the time, the Hawks don’t move much. They don’t shoot much. And they certainly don’t score much.

“When you look at all the games that we’ve lost lately, a lot of them have been one-goal games, and special teams wins games,”
defenseman Jordan Oesterle
said. “We know that and we’re trying to put an emphasis on that. We know it can make a difference.”

Problem is, it already has.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com