Last season, the Chicago Blackhawks’ penalty killing unit, highlighted by the excellent play of Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik, was the envy of teams everywhere, wildly successful and brutally effective.
The team’s power play, on the other hand, was a carnival sideshow by comparison, and was more often the butt of jokes than the recipient of the whistles of admiration from Hawks fans.
In the team’s opening night victory over the Washington Capitals, however, there was a role reversal that caught everyone by surprise. The team’s power play actually notched a power play goal, with Brent Seabrook scoring one in the second period, and the team’s penalty killing unit surrendered three tallies to the Capitals’ brilliant man-advantage unit.
So what changed? Obviously, the personnel were different, as Joakim Nordstrom took the lion’s share of the shifts that Frolik would have gotten a season ago, but that wasn’t the biggest contributing factor to the failures of the penalty killing unit Tuesday night. That distinction goes to the lack of aggressiveness that the team displayed in just about every situation that they were shorthanded in the game.
That was the case on the Caps’ first power play, when Nordstrom, seemingly unsure of where he should be positioned on the ice, lost coverage on Alex Ovechkin near the faceoff circle, and Ovechkin fired a shot past Corey Crawford for a spectacular goal. That unease on the part of the rookie Nordstrom is understandable, being that it was his first NHL game, but head coach Joel Quenneville quickly replaced him with Jonathan Toews the next time the penalty killing unit was out, lending some emphasis to how badly Nordstrom messed up on the play.
That switch did result in a successful kill, as Toews teamed up with Kruger and Marian Hossa to help kill off the penalty with no additional damage being tallied.
On the Capitals’ next two power plays, the Hawks went into turtle-shell mode and conceded the blue line (and basically the faceoff circles too) to the Capitals, and the results speak for themselves. The Caps scored on a set play off a won faceoff, with Ovechkin drawing defensive coverage from both forwards, and Mike Green skated in untouched to fire off a slapshot that Mikhail Grabovski deflected in for the goal. On the next power play, the Caps once again took advantage of the Hawks’ decision to stick near the net, and after a lengthy possession, Green once again fired a slapshot that Grabovski deflected for the goal to give the Capitals the lead.
What the Hawks had done wrong on those penalty kills was ironically rectified in a situation that usually calls for even more caution: a lengthy 5-on-3 power play. With Nordstrom in the box for a panicked clear that ended up going out of play for a delay of game penalty, the Hawks used Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson throughout the vast majority of the ensuing 5-on-3, and they successfully killed off the penalty.
On that penalty kill, the Hawks did a much better job of quickly getting into position to seal off shooting lanes, and the resulting slew of shot blocks, as well as high quality positioning by Crawford, enabled them to stave off the attack and allowed the Hawks to keep the lead intact.
That last successful penalty kill, then, is what the Hawks need to bring forward as they attempt to work on what went wrong during their game with the Capitals. If they can get back to being the aggressive puck-attacking team that they were last season, then they will get back to disrupting opposing power plays and will once again be the envy of the league.