By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — The Chicago Blackhawks appear to be in a solid position to make a run at their third Stanley Cup in five years and their second in a row.
The Blackhawks are not off to the kind of record-setting start they had last year when they went 24 games without a loss in regulation.
That’s not an issue. No team can break records every year and the only thing that head coach Joel Quenneville is concerned about is that his team builds momentum and is playing at the top of its game by the time the playoffs get underway in April.
When a team can put Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford on the ice most nights, the Blackhawks are going to win on talent alone. However, despite all that talent, the Blackhawks are showing a weakness that could prove to be problematic during the regular season and devastating if it is not corrected by the postseason.
The Blackhawks have been the worst team in the league on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks are killing 74.6 percent of their opponents’ power plays, and this is a shocking development.
Last year, the Blackhawks ranked third in the league, as they killed off 87.2 percent of opponents’ power play.
Only the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs were better at killing penalties in the regular season last year. The Blackhawks continued with their outstanding penalty killing in the playoffs and that aspect of their game played a huge role in bringing home the Stanley Cup.
This season, the Blackhawks simply are not doing a good job of keeping the front of the net clean for Crawford or backup goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. A year ago, Keith. Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson were bouncing bodies any time they got within Crawford or Ray Emery’s field of vision.
This year, players like Matt Carles and Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Jason Spezza of the Ottawa Senators have been stationing themselves in front of the net and wreaking havoc. If a goaltender is worrying about opponents who are skating in and out of the path that the puck may travel when it is shot from the point, he’s not concentrating on the puck.
That’s how long slap shots can go into the net.
The other problem comes from forwards who are defending the points who start chasing the puck. Instead of staying in their lane, forwards like Marcus Krueger and Brandon Saad are running around and getting out of position. That gives the players at the point time and space to shoot the puck or pass it to open teammates.
Time and space are the key elements in goal scoring, and that’s especially true on the power play. When one player on the penalty kill is out of position, that’s often a guarantee that the team with the man advantage will score a goal
Here’s what’s so strange for the Blackhawk: their power play is producing quite well. They are scoring on 21.0 percent of their power plays, ranking them eighth in the league.
That’s a dramatic improvement from last year, when they scored on 16.7 percent of their power plays. That ranked 19th in the league.
That figure did not improve in the postseason, as the Blackhawks scored on just 11.4 percent of their power plays. They ranked just 13th of the 16 teams that qualified for the NHL postseason.
Quenneville can’t just look at the numbers and say that while the Blackhawks are struggling on the penalty kill, they have improved dramatically on the power play.
That’s not how it works. The Blackhawks have to protect their own house first and get the penalty kill in order. If not, they are likely to fall two or three goals behind against a team like St. Louis, Anaheim or San Jose.
The Blackhawks have to be more diligent about clearing the space in front of the net and must maintain their discipline when defending the points at the top of the zone.
This must happen sooner, rather than later or the Colorado Avalanche or the St. Louis Blues could build an advantage that will keep them from winning the division this season.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.