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Poor penalty kill killing Hawks

OttawSenators v Chicago Blackhawks

Ottawa Senators v Chicago Blackhawks

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Updated: December 10, 2013 4:21PM

There has to be a technical explanation, right? There has to be some kind of a mechanical reason, something that can be Telestrated and diagrammed with Xs and Os, something that can clearly and concisely explain how one of the very best penalty-killing units in the NHL became one of the very worst penalty-killing units in the NHL.

There has to be something — or someone — to blame for what Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville termed a “disaster.”

Doesn’t there?

Maybe. But maybe not.

“It’s not that guys aren’t trying or aren’t working,” defenseman Sheldon Brookbank said. “It’s just that things aren’t really working out for us for some reason.”

Some reason. But what?

The Hawks are at a loss to explain how a PK unit that killed 87.2 percent of opposing power plays last season has killed just 73.3 percent this season — even after Sunday’s 5-for-5 effort against the dismal Florida Panthers. After all, it’s the same coaching staff using the same structure and scheme with largely the same personnel (Michael Frolik was terrific last season, but he saw about a third of the total minutes and can’t possibly singlehandedly account for a drop from third in the league to 29th).

There are some obvious flaws. The Hawks are winning just 45.8 percent of faceoffs when shorthanded, while winning 51.9 percent the rest of the time. A won draw and a quick clear can kill 20 or 30 seconds right off the bat; a lost draw is an instant structured setup for the opponents.

The Hawks are allowing more shots through, less aggressive and seemingly a step slow into shooting lanes. And Corey Crawford isn’t bailing them out when that happens — he has a .925 save percentage at even strength, and a .784 save percentage shorthanded.

And the Hawks aren’t making clean clears early in power plays, which leaves them scrambling in their own end for 30, 45 or even 60 seconds at a time, leaving them “dead tired, twisting themselves into the ice as the lactic acid gets into your legs and you’re kind of stuck there,” according to longtime PK specialist and current radio analyst Troy Murray.

But more than anything else, the Hawks don’t have any confidence in themselves. The snowball has been rolling downhill for too long, and they appear to have completely psyched themselves out.

“It seems like last year, we had a little more confidence when we went out there,” Marcus Kruger said. “Now, we’re maybe a little on our heels and don’t want to get scored on. It felt the other way last year; it almost felt nice to get a PK last year, and kill that off.”

At first, it sounds silly to think that professional athletes at the highest level — even those coming off a championship and still leading the league — can have such a crisis of confidence, that a player’s mental state can so clearly affect his play on the ice. But think back to last spring, when Patrick Kane sat in his stall at Staples Center talking about how he was watching clips of old goals to remind himself that yes, indeed, he was a good player. Or Jonathan Toews talking about squeezing the stick too hard when he had one goal in 20 playoff games.

They’re human. And right now, on the penalty kill, they’re almost expecting the worst, which prevents them from playing their best.

“You start to think more, and when you think, you’re not reacting,” Murray said. “In your mind, you’re saying, ‘Where am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to be doing? If the puck goes here, I’m supposed to be going here.’ It’s too much thinking in your head. Last year, it was just instinctive. It was just reaction. When you’re thinking first and reacting after, there’s that moment when there’s a shooting lane that could be open, and NHL players are too good — they can capitalize on that split second. The game of hockey is just too quick to over-think and analyze. Last year, it was just automatic.”

You could hear that doubt creeping in Friday night when Toews talked about how the Hawks just aren’t getting the breaks, how every little mistake keeps ending up in the back of their net. That’s not the way a confident team talks. Last year, the Hawks couldn’t wait to hop over the boards and kill a penalty. This year, they’re just waiting for the other skate to drop. And it keeps dropping.

On Thursday night in Minnesota, the Wild scored the game-tying goal late in the third period on a power play when Jonas Brodin’s shot ticked off Johnny Oduya, redirecting it past Crawford.

“It’s an inch away from being blocked cleanly,” Murray said. “Johnny Oduya was in good position, he was where he needed to be, he was doing what he was supposed to be doing. It just went wrong. And that’s just kind of what’s happening right now.”

And every time it happens, it reinforces the doubt and propagates the problem.

Maybe that’s the most maddening part for the Hawks, that it seems to make no sense. Last year, the power play was abysmal. This year, it’s humming along rather well. Same staff, same players, same scheme — but the Hawks are pulling out goals even on lousy power plays, and that confidence spins forward. Now it’s the penalty kill, their security blanket last year, that’s gone awry.

And here’s the tricky part: The only way thing that’s going to get the Hawks to successfully kill more penalties is to successfully kill more penalties.

“It just seems like things kind of snowball when it’s going bad for you,” Brookbank said. “The bounces start going the wrong way. And when things are good, they have an open net and they flub it, and you get rolling. It’s definitely a cause for concern, but we’re more than capable of turning that around.”

They had better truly believe that. Because while the Hawks proved last year you can win a Stanley Cup without a strong power play, it’ll be exceedingly difficult to do without a strong PK.

“That’s the funny thing about sports,” Murray said. “You can be a championship team and go through a spell where you’re just not being successful. Sometimes, you just can’t explain it.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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