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Marcus Kruger helps Blackhawks penalty kill get hot at the right time

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The Blackhawks saw some major struggles on the penalty kill in Feburary and early March, but they're getting back on track at a key point in the season

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One of the biggest areas of concern for the Chicago Blackhawks during their recent two month stretch of struggles in Feburary and March was their horrid penalty kill. Historically, the Hawks playoff chances have only been as strong as their penalty kill, and for a good portion of this season, those chances appeared to be slim.

Over the last six seasons, the Blackhawks have fallen short of Stanley Cup glory three times -- 2011, 2012, and 2014. In those three seasons, the Blackhawks penalty kill ranked 25th, 29th, and 14th, respectively. They finished this season with the 22nd best penalty kill in the NHL, surviving 80.3 percent of their times shorthanded unscathed. That seems a bit troubling.

To make matters worse, Chicago's fall from grace on the penalty kill happened very quickly. On Feb. 9, the Blackhawks had the 9th best penalty kill in the NHL. By March 15, the Blakhawks penalty kill had fallen to 25th. That happened over the course of just 13 games, and they struggled to climb back up the PK rankings after that freefall.

However, the Chicago penalty kill has nothing short of fantastic over the past several weeks. Over the past eight games, the Blackhawks have surrendered just one power play goal, and that was Scott Hartnell's overtime winner during Saturday's 5-4 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Their 95.2 percent success rating when shorthanded is tops in the NHL in that time.

The penalty kill percentage isn't the the only encouraging statistic over that period, either. During the month of April, the Blackhawks have seen many of the most concerning statistics on the penalty kill trend in a favorable direction.

Over their five April games, the Blackhawks have allowed significantly fewer shots, high danger scoring chances, and goals against per hour compared to the previous two months. They brought both their HSCA/60 and GA/60 down to the second lowest rates of the season, and the SA/60 to the third lowest of the season.

The change in the Blackhawks penalty kill has helped the Hawks see more success of late as well. They've gone 5-1-2 over their past eight games, collecting 12 of the 16 points available to them in that time. That includes their five April games, in which they went 3-0-2 to collect eight of the ten available points.

One of the biggest reasons for the Blackhawks penalty kill success of late has been the return of their most important penalty killer: Marcus Kruger. Kruger went down to a wrist injury on December 18, and missed all of Chicago's games from then until his return on March 26 against the Calgary Flames. His return has sparked an incredible improvement in the Blackhawks penalty kill.

When Kruger was out of the lineup, the Blackhawks allowed a significantly higher rate of shots, scoring chances and goals. Those numbers have fallen steeply since his return from injury.

With Kruger in the lineup, The Blackhawks penalty kill is remarkably better. They allow significantly fewer fewer shots, high danger chances, compared to when he was injured. While Kruger's individual rate stats on the penalty kill this season aren't as impressive -- his SA/60, HSCA/60, and GA/60 are 57. 21.88 and 6.69, respectively -- his presence in the lineup clearly has a hugely positive impact on the team's penalty killing.

While the Blackhawks penalty kill has been successful just 80.3 percent of the time this season overall, they're markedly better in that department as well when Kruger is i the lineup. In his 39 games this season, the Blackhawks have successfully killed off 100 of their 117 times shorthanded, an 85.4 percent clip. Had the Blackhawks been able to have Kruger in the lineup all year, assuming that they would've remained successful on the PK at that rate, that would've been good enough for third in the NHL.

The good news for the Blackhawks is that Kruger gets to play and kill penalties in the playoffs. That means that they'll have their best and most important penalty killer available to them, and can reasonably expect the team to perform similarly when shorthanded.

However, one of the key aspects of any potential playoff success that the Hawks may have will be to limit the number of penalties they take per game. In their five April games, they took just 14 penalties, for a 2.7 penalties per game rate. That  number was among their lowest of the season for any month, and was just as important to their penalty killing success as Kruger's presence in the lineup. Compare that to the month of February, in which they took 36 penalties in 11 games for a 3.27 penalties per game average. That was their highest per game average of any month this season, and as a result, February was by far their worst month of the season when shorthanded.

If they can keep their key penalty killing personnel such as Kruger, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa healthy, and do their best to stay out of the box, their penalty kill could turn out to actually be a strength this postseason rather than the weakness many presume it to be. That will be absolutely vital for the Blackhawks if they hope to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions this June.

Adam Hess is a staff writer at Second City Hockey. Follow him on Twitter at @_adamhess.