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Struggling penalty kill is killing the Blackhawks lately

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is in his 11th season with the team. | Getty Images

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is in his 11th season with the team. | Getty Images

During each of their three recent championship seasons, the Blackhawks’ penalty kill has been the one constant. Star players went through scoring droughts, goalies had rough stretches, injuries wreaked havoc on the lineup, the power play ran hot and cold. But the penalty kill was always good, often great. It was on a record pace for much of the 2014-15 season. It was the third-best in the league in 2013. It was fifth-best in 2009-10.

Right now? It’s awful. Twenty-fifth in the league, sputtering along at a dismal 78.3 percent success rate. And if anything’s going to prevent the Hawks — the deep, talented, experienced Hawks — from winning a fourth Stanley Cup in seven seasons, it’ll be that.

“It’s got to get better,” Joel Quenneville said. “We can’t think we’re going to go along at this percentage and this rate and win hockey games.”

The PK has been middling to bad all season, but has really struggled over the last month, when both Marian Hossa and Marcus Kruger were injured. In the eight games Hossa missed, the Hawks allowed 10 goals on 30 opposing power plays. Hossa returned Friday in Dallas, but the result was the same — two goals on six power plays.

There’s hope and help on the horizon, as Kruger — one of the top penalty-killers in the game — nears his return from wrist surgery. But Kruger can’t fix this. Not on his own. He’s just one-fourth of one PK unit, after all. The problem is systemic — which is odd, considering the Hawks haven’t changed their PK system in the slightest.

The Hawks simply aren’t executing it well. They’re a split-second late getting in front of shots. There’s a half-second hesitation before clearing attempts. Their trademark aggressiveness is nowhere to be found, as point-men go unchallenged and killers stand flat-footed in the no-man’s land between the point and the slot.

“Just looking at the goals we’ve allowed, it’s goals that we really could have prevented,” Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “It’s just not being sharp, just not being in the shooting lanes, not getting to rebounds. We’re just sloppy.”

Quenneville has tried just about everybody to fill the skates of Kruger. Rookies Tanner Kero and Phil Danault both had their chances. Ryan Garbutt saw his share of time. Newcomers Andrew Ladd and Tomas Fleischmann are now in the rotation. Six defensemen have been regulars.

The inconsistent personnel certainly has contributed to the inconsistent performance. At its peak, the Hawks PK features a consistent rotation, with Kruger and Andrew Desjardins or Artem Anisimov on the first unit, and Hossa and Jonathan Toews on the second.

Hjalmarsson tried to look on the bright side.

“It’s not ideal,” Hjalmarsson said. “You always want to have a few guys that kind of rotate and know exactly what you’re doing, But at the same time, we’ve got to see pretty much all the guys and how they do on the PK, and if any of the guys [get hurt] again, at least they know how to play the system. So maybe that can be to our advantage in the long run.”

The Hawks don’t practice much. But it’s a safe bet they’ll be working on special teams Sunday morning at Johnny’s IceHouse West.

“We definitely have to focus on it more,” Toews said. “That’s what it comes down to. We know that when there’s something that’s really sticking out in our game, if we address it and put even more focus on it, work on it, there’s nothing we can’t rectify.”

The confidence is still there, even if the results aren’t.

“I feel like the system works, because we won a few Stanley Cups with that exact kill,” Hossa said. “But back then we were more on the same page. We were moving at the same time. We have to get the chemistry back, and get back together. We’ll be fine.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus