Blackhawks’ improved penalty kill, riding 17-for-17 streak, has been recent bright spotBen Popeon April 24, 2021 at 7:58 pm

The Blackhawks have killed 17 straight penalties over the past seven games. | AP Photo/Jeff Haynes

A struggle for much of the season, the Hawks’ penalty kill has finally found their groove in the last seven games — even as the team’s playoff hopes have slipped away.

The Blackhawks, over their last seven games, have allowed more shots on goal against per minute at even strength than on the penalty kill.

That’s a mind-boggling statistic in any circumstance, made even more unbelievable by the fact the Hawks had sported one of the NHL’s worst penalty kills before this stretch.

But even as the team’s playoff hopes have slowly slipped away — after Friday’s loss dropped their odds to around 2%, the next defeat might be the dagger — the penalty kill has emerged as a late-season bright spot.

“That’s definitely a positive as we play the big games,” coach Jeremy Colliton said this week. “The special teams are a big part of it. So [while the] power play hasn’t been as good lately, the PK has picked up the slack in a lot of ways.”

Since March 24, the Hawks have killed 29 of 32 opponent power plays, a turnaround that has boosted their season kill rate up to a more respectable 76.5% (25th in the league).

And over the last seven games, they’re a perfect 17-for-17 on the penalty kill, including 9-for-9 during this week’s three-game series against the Predators.

Assistant coach Sheldon Brookbank, who oversees the PK, drew up an effective game plan to neutralize the Preds’ power play, defenseman Connor Murphy said Friday.

Much of Nashville’s strategy is designed to set up Eeli Tolvanen for shots at the left-side faceoff circle — Tolvanen burned the Hawks back on Apr. 3 doing exactly that — so the Hawks made sure to keep a close watch on him this week.

The two times Tolvanen received the puck with space during power plays Friday, Murphy closed quickly on him, deflecting one shot attempt harmlessly away and giving him no space to attempt a shot the second time.

“We continued to look at video, and ‘Brooksie’ does a great job of showing us things every day to get ready and match up against certain teams,” Murphy said. “They wanted [defenseman Roman] Josi to have a lot of shots, and get it over to Tolvanen to shoot. So we were able to take away a lot of those chances from them. It’s important for the kill to be going to push momentum.”

David Kampf and Ryan Carpenter with Murphy and Duncan Keith has been the Hawks’ No. 1 penalty kill unit much of the season, and that hasn’t changed.

But with forwards Mattias Janmark and Carl Soderberg now gone and defenseman Calvin de Haan off-and-on injured recently, the Hawks have turned to the likes of Kirby Dach, Alex DeBrincat — evidencing just how much he in particular has improved defensively — and Riley Stillman to bolster the No. 2 unit.

The result has been immense improvement. Through the team’s first 41 games, their PK allowed 1.65 shot attempts and 0.85 scoring chances per minute — 25th and 22nd, respectively, in the league.

Yet over the past seven games, the Hawks’ PK has allowed only 1.07 shot attempts and 0.53 scoring chances per minute — second in the league in both categories.

They’ve also been better at either blocking or forcing wide the opponents’ shot attempts, lowering the on-goal percentage from 61.1% before to 47.1% lately. (As referenced earlier, the end result is they’ve incredibly allowed just 0.50 shots on goal per minute on the penalty kill versus 0.54 at even strength.)

The sample size is small, and the turnaround ultimately happened too late to make a difference in the standings, but the Hawks can “take pride” — in Murphy’s words — in perhaps finally fixing one of their bigger weaknesses this season.

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