MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — There was a certain swagger, a palpable confidence to the Chicago Blackhawks’ penalty kill last season.
When the kill units strode onto the ice, it’s almost as if they had no doubt they’d leave having snuffed out another opponent power play. That confidence and those results were missing earlier this season. But in recent games, they’re both back.
The Blackhawks’ penalty kill has done an about face, breaking out of its early season quagmire to regain its effectiveness. It hasn’t allowed a power-play goal in the last eight games, killing all 23 advantages over that time span. While the Blackhawks’ kill is still ranked 26th overall in the NHL — hey, it had a really bad start — it’s improved to 13th overall on the road (82.8 percent). That’s good, considering the Blackhawks won’t be home again until March.
For coach Joel Quenneville, the turnaround can be attributed to a few things.
“I’m going to say goaltending, tandems, movement, clears, pressure, short shifts and predictability,” he said. “I thought it was trending (the right way) since we got off to that terrible start for a number of games. We had some games where the numbers didn’t reflect that we were doing the right things. You’re going to have some good stretches and some terrible stretches over the course of a season but hopefully we’ve stabilized here.”
The Blackhawks auditioned a few different players after trading blossoming penalty killer Michael Frolik last summer. But Frolik’s departure was only part of the problem. The Blackhawks looked uncertain, uncomfortable and not aggressive enough. Marcus Kruger said all of that has changed.
“The system isn’t that different but I think it’s just we feel more comfortable now when we’re going out there. That makes a whole lot of difference,” he said. “At the start of the year, we didn’t play well enough, but we had bad bounces and got on our heels and didn’t trust each other. It’s the confidence we’ve gained the last couple of months, really.”
The confidence has shown, from the goaltending on out. Kruger said Corey Crawford was probably the team’s best penalty killer on Saturday night, when the Blackhawks nixed four San Jose power plays in their shootout loss. Goaltending is certainly a big part of it. But as Kruger said, the Blackhawks’ killers are sure of themselves and each other more now than earlier this season, and they’ve been more proactive because of it.
“You can be more aggressive when you trust the guys around you,” he said. “You know they’ll cover up for you. Now we do stuff we didn’t do at the beginning of the year and we trust each other better. That makes the whole PK better.”