Takeaways from Blackhawks’ first two games: Offense sputtering, penalty kill adjusting

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Through two games, the Blackhawks have been what the hockey world expected them to be: Losers.

They’ve been fairly competitive losers, they’ve been losers in very difficult matchups and it’s not exactly the players’ or coaches’ faults they’ve been losers, but there’s no way around the fact the Hawks have lost both games.

The two losses — 5-2 at the Avalanche on Wednesday and 1-0 at the Golden Knights on Thursday — did finally provide some meaningful data worth analyzing, though. So before the Hawks wrap up their opening road trip Saturday against the Sharks, here are four major takeaways from their first 120 minutes of hockey.

Penalty kill adjusting

One of new coach Luke Richardson’s most noticeable and discussed early changes was to the Hawks’ penalty-kill strategy. The new approach is far more aggressive, pressuring opposing power plays in the neutral zone and even at times forechecking into the offensive zone.

“A lot of teams fall back into a 1-3 and take their chances at the blue line,” Richardson said during training camp. “I don’t like those odds against the best players in the world. I’d rather disrupt things up ice. They’re not used to it, they don’t like it, and it bodes well for our team, especially adding a little more speed this year.”

The preseason results were encouraging: the Hawks’ penalty kill allowed thefourth-fewest shot attempts and second-fewest scoring chances in the NHL.

But the Avalanche’s loaded ‘PP’ units — Cale Makar in particular — were able to break through the Hawks’ pressure Wednesday, take advantage of the extra space they found after doing so and score four times on six opportunities.

On their second power-play goal, the Avalanche executed a high-low-high play in which Hawks defensemen Connor Murphy and Jarred Tinordi both focused on Mikko Rantanen at the goal line, leaving Artturi Lehkonen open in the slot to bury the goal. Richardson singled that out as a teaching moment.

“We have to seal those off,” Richardson said. “The goalie has no chance on that. [If] we give up the low wrap to the goalie, we have a chance on that. That’s on us to kill those and make sure we give the lowest percentage play.”

On Thursday, the Hawks’ penalty kill looked more comfortable with the new scheme, squashing all three Knights power plays and surrendering no high-danger chances during the final two. Richardson attributed that to being more organized with the up-ice pressure and having better-placed sticks in the defensive zone.

Defensemen Jack Johnson and Seth Jones and forwards MacKenzie Entwistle and Sam Lafferty have received the most shorthanded ice time so far.

Lacking offensive firepower

The most glaring statistic of all through the Hawks’ first two games is their even-strength goal total: Zero.

The offense has generally looked just as harmless as that goose egg implies, recording only 35 even-strength shots on goal. The Penguins, for comparison’s sake, have recorded 37 — and they’ve only played one game. The power play certainly hasn’t been dominant either, but at least it has found the net, thanks to Jonathan Toews and Max Domi’s man-advantage goals Wednesday.

All of the Hawks’ per-60-minute rates at even strength (46.8 shot attempts, 21.5 shots on goal, 21.5 scoring chances and 1.99 expected goals) would’ve ranked last in the league last season.

Although some upward regression is inevitable, those numbers are alarming, not least because they match up with any simple eye-test evaluation of the Hawks’ roster: Outside of Kane, they just don’t have any proven high-end scorers.

Domi has historically been a pass-first playmaker and Andreas Athanasiou has historically struggled to finish most of the plentiful chances his speed creates, and neither has done anything to indicate they’ll be different on the Hawks. Toews centering Taylor Raddysh and Tyler Johnson has clearly been the Hawks’ best line so far, but they’re never going to be an explosive trio, either.

The Hawks will add one more forward to the mix, albeit a defensive-minded one, this weekend when Jason Dickinson — having finally cleared Canadian immigration — joins the team. Buddy Robinson was sent down Friday in a corresponding move.

Defensive shuffling

The Hawks’ defensive health woes may finally be turning a corner, with Connor Murphy surviving two pucks-to-the-face to play in both games and Caleb Jones returning from his shoulder injury Thursday.

“When you’re playing, you don’t really feel it much — you have the adrenaline going — but it’s definitely a little sore after the game,” Jones said. “[I felt] a little bit of rust. I’ve got a little bit of work to do to clean some things up. But there’s some positive stuff there I can build off.”

With Jake McCabe also possibly returning during the opening homestand, the Hawks will soon be able to reassign one or two defensemen to Rockford, with Alex Vlasic — who hasn’t even played yet anyway due to a minor leg injury — the most likely candidate.

Alec Regula and Filip Roos, the other two “bubble” guys who made the initial roster, have both been bright spots. They’re the only two Hawks defensemen with positive even-strength scoring-chance ratios (although Regula’s sample size is only one game). Roos holding his own in his first two North American games has been particularly impressive.

“He’s not afraid to shoot it,” Richardson said of Roos. “He moves the puck crisply. That’s a little bit of that European skill you see a lot of from Swedish players that come over.”

With so little inexperience and consistency in the defensive lineup, Seth Jones has been counted on to handle massive workloads. He played 25:05 on Wednesday and 27:05 on Thursday.

Solid goaltending

Of all the Hawks’ obvious weaknesses entering the season, the goaltending duo of Petr Mrazek and Alex Stalock seemed perhaps the biggest. But so far, they’ve been the best position group.

Stalock was arguably heroic Thursday. His heart-stopping, ultra-aggressive style — charging out of his net at will all night — made all 36 of his saves (on 37 shots against) exhilarating. As a result, he currently leads the league in goals saved above expected (GSAA) at plus-2.3, per Natural Stat Trick.

Mrazek’s .857 raw save percentage Wednesday doesn’t impress at first glance, but the Hawks’ PK struggles — and the Avalanche’s propensity for tipping pucks — can be primarily blamed for that. At even strength, Mrazek stopped 24 of 25 with a plus-0.9 GSAA.

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