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The Blackhawks’ penalty kill is coming around

Once on pace for historically bad numbers, Chicago’s penalty kill is showing signs of life.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at San Jose Sharks John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

December and January or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the penalty kill.

During the first portion of the Blackhawks’ season, their special teams unit was a disaster in every sense of the word. By Oct. 26, Chicago had allowed 14 goals in 26 penalty kill attempts, the worst mark in history through seven games by far. On Dec. 6, after they had played a third of their games, their special teams unit had made stops on only 58 of 82 opposing power plays, or 70.7 percent. Not only was it the worst mark in the league by far, it would have been the sixth-worst mark of all time had it stuck throughout the season.

A month and a half later, their percentage has risen to 76.4 percent, nearly six whole percentage points higher. And while the unit still isn’t perfect — it’s now only the third-worst in the league — it’s seen a marked improvement since flirting with historic levels of futility.

What has been behind the turnaround? An obvious explanation might be the team’s developing chemistry and cohesiveness. With six rookies seeing regular playing time in place of the Hawks’ numerous offseason departures (Andrew Shaw, Andrew Ladd, Teuvo Teravainen), growing pains were to be expected. Players admitted that communication got better as the season went along, which led to increased success on the kill.

“We’re reading each other better and helping each other out,” Dennis Rasmussen told the Chicago Tribune in December. “We are sacrificing ourselves more than we did in the beginning. I feel like we’re blocking more shots.”

Early on in the season, however, the veterans weren’t faring any better than the new guys. In Chicago’s second game of the season, a 3-2 loss against Nashville, the Predators scored all three goals while the Hawks were a man down. Each one came on the exact same play: a wrist shot from the point man met with no resistance in front of the net.

Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa were on the ice for two of those goals, and top defenders Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson for all three. Watch at 0:48, 1:37, and 1:58 of the following video:

By the final one, the vets look tired and complacent, perhaps as a result of logging so many minutes on the kill. Toews and Hossa shouldn’t be leaned on so heavily in such challenging situations, but with limited trust in anyone else, coach Joel Quenneville had little choice.

But since Quenneville has started using Rasmussen, Tanner Kero, and Andrew Desjardins more frequently on the PK, the unit seems to be more effective. Watch at 1:58 of the following video from early January, as the Blues try to run the same play the Predators did in October:

Rather than skating around in front of the net like Toews and Hossa did against Nashville, Kero and Desjardins get after the puck, just enough to apply pressure and not let Colton Parayko get comfortable. This is something the penalty kill wasn’t always doing early in the season.

No one is going to call Kero and Desjardins better skaters than Toews and Hossa. But as the season has progressed, Quenneville has experimented with different lineups, growing confidence in the young guys while allowing the vets to save their legs and operate in situations better suited to their skill set.

Chicago’s PK still shows wrinkles — they’ve given up power play goals in three of the past four games — and they’re also fortunate to have logged the second-least penalty minutes thus far. But at the very least, the PK is not outright losing them games anymore, and a unit that was once laughably bad is showing signs of progress.