Hockey players are loath to publicly get into the Xs and Os of their craft, preferring to pin everything on more intangible things such as effort and energy, momentum and confidence. But despite the improvised nature of the sport, everyone has their assignments — particularly on a unit as critical as the penalty kill.
“There’s obviously a system to be played,” Blackhawks rookie Tyler Motte said. “I don’t think there’s any time we’re just going to wing it, go out there and say, ‘Hey, don’t get scored on.’ That’s not how the team’s run here. We’ve got a structure.”
Through three games, the Hawks haven’t done a very good job of sticking to that structure. They’ve yielded seven power-play goals on just 13 opportunities, for a ghastly 46.2 percent success rate. No other team has allowed more than three power-play goals in the season’s first week. Sure, it’s early. But the Hawks have built much of their success in recent years on a lockdown penalty kill, which can mask a lot of other problems.
“It hasn’t been good enough,” Marcus Kruger said. “It’s not even close to being good. We’ve got to battle through it. It’s going to be a process to getting it better.”
At their best, the Hawks pressure the puck carrier in the neutral zone during breakouts, and at the point once the power play is set up. But against some opponents, the Hawks will be more passive in an attempt to coax a dump-in, then work to retrieve the puck and clear it. But through the first three games, the Hawks have been beaten from the perimeter by the St. Louis Blues and up the middle by the Nashville Predators. They’re not pressuring point men into turnovers, and they’re doing a poor job of getting in shooting lanes to block or alter shots. And they’re not winning enough faceoffs in the defensive zone, as three of the power-play goals came shortly after lost draws.
“Every power play is different, which is part of the factors that go into it, as well,” Motte said. “But our system doesn’t change. We’ve just got to know who’s on the ice, what their plays are, and just try to shut it down as much as we can.”
Kruger is one of the league’s elite penalty-killers, and his institutional knowledge is key to the Hawks’ success. With Andrew Desjardins injured, Marian Hossa being limited a bit to preserve his ice time, and Artem Anisimov spending as much time in the penalty box as on the penalty kill, the Hawks have used several different players in the rotation. Kruger and Motte have been working together, with Jonathan Toews, Hossa, Anisimov, and Dennis Rasmussen getting turns.
Kruger has been on the ice for three of the goals, as has Motte. Hossa has been on the ice for four power-play goals in just one minute, 33 seconds of shorthanded ice time. The defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson has been on the ice for the last four, and Keith has been on the ice for six total.
“We’re playing enough guys that have been around for the penalty kill before, so I don’t think that’s a big problem,” Kruger said. “We’re going to have tough stretches.”
Indeed, if this happened in, say, the middle of January for a few games, it would probably be less alarming than it is right at the start of the season. Of course, it also would help if the Hawks stopped taking so many penalties. They’ve been shorthanded a whopping 13 times in three games, which is a recipe for disaster. Anisimov alone has taken four minor penalties.
“You always have stretches where the puck is going in,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “So it’s a combination of a few extra penalties we don’t need to take, and [making] sure that, when there’s time to pressure, we have to pressure. And when there’s time to get in the shot lane or block a shot, [we do that].”
Kruger, as hockey players do, said confidence is an issue right now for the PK unit. A poor start can creep into your head and affect your decision-making — and when it comes to blocking a shot or diverting a pass, a split second can make all the difference. The Hawks can only hope momentum can swing in a positive direction as emphatically as it’s so far gone in the wrong direction.
“There are a lot of things not going our way, but it’s our job to continue to get better,” Motte said. “It’s a long season. A streak here of 10 or so penalties killed off can really turn it around for us. Our goal is to have one of the better PKs in the league. That’s something that’s still reachable for us.”