In a penalty marred affair on Wednesday night, the Chicago Blackhawks became the first team in the NHL to reach 50 points in the standings for the season with a 7-2 thrashing of the Philadelphia Flyers at the United Center.
Perhaps more impressive than their record lately has been their ability score goals on the power play. The Hawks have now scored at least one goal on the man-advantage in each of their last seven games, and their offense as a whole has really picked up as well, scoring 32 goals in those contests.
Last season, the Hawks’ power play was among the ugliest in the league, simply comprising a series of half-hearted passes and ill-advised shot attempts that ended up hitting defenders and bouncing harmlessly out of the offensive zone. In 48 regular season games, their power play woes led them to a 16.7% success rate on the man-advantage, ranking them 19th in the league behind such "stalwart" offenses as the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators.
This season though, the Hawks are doing a lot better in that area. They’ve jumped up all the way to 5th in the league with their recent 10-for-31 surge, scoring on 23.3% of their power plays.
What has changed so drastically for the Blackhawks on their power play as of late? To put it simply, the team is merely executing on the strategy that head coach Joel Quenneville and company have been preaching for years: get traffic to the front of the net, and get pucks to the net to take advantage of the screens.
Consider Sunday’s game against the Florida Panthers. On two separate occasions, Patrick Sharp was set up at the blue line in his normal point position, and he shot two pucks in on net. Both times, Andrew Shaw was right at the top of the crease, and the Panthers were having difficulty in clearing him from that area. The first shot from Sharp ended up beating Scott Clemmensen on his glove side, and the other bounced off of Shaw’s shinpad and into the net for the tally.
On Tuesday against the Dallas Stars, Sharp and Shaw did the exact same thing to perfection. After trying earlier in the game to move the puck around the zone and cause the Dallas defenders to move around and create lanes (the strategy failed spectacularly on a lengthy 5-on-3 the Hawks couldn’t score on), they went back to just getting Shaw to the front of the net and having Sharp fire a hard and high slap shot to the net. Once again, Kari Lehtonen couldn’t fight his way through the screen, and the puck tickled the twine to put the Hawks up 4-0 in that game.
Finally, the Blackhawks used the strategy again on Wednesday against the Philadelphia Flyers, but with a bit of a wrinkle. As opposed to the previous times that the Hawks had established a lengthy possession in the offensive zone before shooting the puck on net, this time Chicago had Patrick Kane gain zone entry with control of the puck, and when he pushed it back to Sharp at the point, the Flyers’ defense froze. Seeing this, Sharp dished it quickly to Duncan Keith, whose slap shot beat Ray Emery (with Shaw once again in front of the net) for the goal, and the Hawks tied the game at 1-1, and set the stage for an insane second period outburst.
Taking advantage of a 5-on-3 power play in the third period, the Hawks were able to use quick passing and good positioning to score again. With Jonathan Toews providing the screen in front of the net this time, Keith and Marian Hossa played catch with the puck at the point to try to get the Flyers’ defense moving, and then Hossa put a great pass onto the stick of Kane alongside the net. With Steve Mason reacting late because of the screen, Kane immediately flipped the puck back across the crease, and Sharp was the one to tidy up as he put the shot into the empty cage to make it 7-2 Blackhawks.
Between getting traffic to the front of the net more consistently, putting accurate shots in on goal, and most importantly, using their lightning-quick puck movement to put the defense off-guard, the Hawks have begun to rack up power play goals this season, and they’ve added another weapon to an arsenal that has to be worrisome to opponents throughout the league.