Ottawa Senators right wing Erik Condra (22) is sandwiched between Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Sheldon Brookbank (17) and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin during the first period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
There isn’t much that the Chicago Blackhawks aren’t capable of doing these days, but there is one element to their game that is in desperate need of repair: their penalty killing unit.
Through 15 games, the Hawks have the worst penalty killing unit in the NHL, only killing off 73.2% of the power plays they allow. They have allowed four goals in their last 14 attempts against opponents’ power plays, and even though they have only committed one penalty in their last two games (and it barely lasted more than 10 seconds before being erased by another penalty), there is still plenty of work that needs to be done.
For starters, there is the habit the Hawks have developed lately of letting players move around the front of the net uncontested. At even strength against the Calgary Flames on Sunday, the Hawks let Michael Cammalleri stand in front of Corey Crawford, and he ended up deflecting a shot into the net. On that play, Niklas Hjalmarsson likely was trying to let Crawford see the incoming shot, but even still, you can’t just let a player set up shop and get a free swipe at a shot as it comes through. Even if Cammalleri had missed and Crawford had seen the shot, he still could have coughed up a rebound and given the Flames a good chance on the doorstep.
Another example of that occurred against the Ottawa Senators, when Milan Michalek stood in front of the net for at least five seconds without a single Blackhawk so much as breathing on him. Duncan Keith just let Michalek camp out in front of Nikolai Khabibulin, and even though the Senators didn’t score, it was a situation that could have turned bad in a hurry.
Another mistake the Hawks are making on the penalty kill is that they are overcommitting to the puck and are allowing open ice for their opponents. Against the Minnesota Wild, both Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya darted out to the boards to contest pucks, and both times ended up coming away with a loss in the puck battle. Fortunately for Chicago, the Wild weren’t able to cycle the puck fast enough to take advantage of those miscues, but teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning have been.
So what do the Hawks need to do to fix those two issues facing their penalty killing unit? For starters, they need to get more aggressive in the area near the blue paint. Letting guys set up shop in front of the net can’t happen, and defensemen like Brent Seabrook need to do their part in making sure those guys don’t feel comfortable, and aren’t able to time their tip-in attempts.
The other strategy that seems to work for the Hawks is the excellent contrast in styles that Joel Quenneville and company have employed in the two penalty killing groups. Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa are responsible defensive forwards, and they use their quick hands more than an aggressive approach involving skating right at a puck-carrier to create turnovers and get opportunities to clear the puck.
Meanwhile, guys like Marcus Kruger, Brandon Saad, and Andrew Shaw are the exact opposite, flying all over the ice trying to create pressure and prevent teams from getting their puck cycle game going. If Quenneville can keep varying up the looks like he has been at times on the penalty kill, then that is going to create some headaches for opponents.
Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet when it comes to penalty killing. It appears as though the Hawks are struggling both in their strategy and in their execution, so it will require tweaks to both in order for them to get out of their doldrums in that area.