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Why Blackhawks’ penalty kill was good during 2019-20 regular season

After a few seasons near the bottom of the NHL, Chicago saw its key defensive unit rebound.

St Louis Blues v Chicago Blackhawks
Ryan Carpenter of the Chicago Blackhawks walks to the ice prior to an NHL game against the St. Louis Blues
Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images

The Blackhawks had a lot of issues during the 2019-20 regular season.

They’re the last seed in the Western Conference to make the Qualifier round for a reason, coming 12th out of 15 teams. The debate about whether they should win or lose a five-game series against the No. 5 seed Oilers could be decided in Edmonton’s favor in as few as three games, and it wouldn’t necessarily be shocking.

For all of their flaws, though, the Blackhawks did some things well. Perhaps none was better than their goaltending as Corey Crawford was the team’s most valuable player with the most goals (14.2) and wins (2.5) above replacement, and Robin Lehner helped a lot before he was traded in February.

There were fantastic individual performances from Dominik Kubalik, Brandon Saad and Connor Murphy as two-way presences and Patrick Kane’s continuation of being the team’s top scorer.

But of the Blackhawks’ special team units, only one truly shined. That was the penalty kill, which may have been the best unit of the Blackhawks’ three this season, including the power play and even strength squads.

After multiple seasons of poor penalty killing, it may come as a surprise Chicago finally saw capable shorthanded shifts under new assistant coach Marc Crawford. For the purposes of this article, “capable” means the Blackhawks finished in the top 10 best with 6.34 goals against per 60, almost four goals fewer than in 2018-19.

Blackhawks’ shorthanded goals against per 60:

2018-19: 10.07 (highest in NHL)
2017-18: 7.59 (13th)
2016-17: 8.09 (6th)
2015-16: 7.45 (7th)

Lehner thrived

Part of Chicago’s success can be attributed to goaltending, as the Blackhawks finished with the NHL’s third-best save percentage on the penalty kill (.889). It’s an uptick of .046 percent from 2018-19, when the Blackhawks finished 26th (.843). Lehner played a big role in that change with the fourth-best save percentage (.918) among goaltenders with more than 30 minutes shorthanded. Corey Crawford finished 43rd in the same category (.853).

Murphy and Saad stepped up

It’s also due to individual performances, as Murphy had the third-most time shorthanded ice time (162:49) — after Duncan Keith (171:13) and Ryan Carpenter (167:43) — allowing just 4.42 goals against per 60 while blocking a team-high 31 shots.

Saad led the team in shorthanded goals (two) and takeaways (11), driving the puck incredibly well with a 21.89 percent expected goal percentage and 28.89 percent high-danger chance percentage off a 7.32 percent offensive zone start percentage.

Offseason additions

Carpenter and Olli Maatta — two unheralded offseason additions — also stake a claim to the success. Carpenter led the team with three shorthanded points (one goal, two assists) and had five takeaways and 16 blocked shots, but also took a team-high 12 penalty minutes while shorthanded. For a guy only making $1 million, Carpenter still represented huge value.

Maatta played 125:30 and, like Saad, drove the puck effectively with a 20.47 percent expected goal share and 22.64 percent high-danger share off just a 2.04 percent offensive zone start percentage. Maatta also shut down opponents, allowing just 5.85 expected goals per 60. Speed, the asset Maatta lacks most, doesn’t matter much on the penalty kill.

Calvin de Haan was also important to the penalty kill before he re-injured his right shoulder in December. He had a 6.08 goals against per 60 in 79 minutes and 13 shots blocked. He has joined the team for voluntary workouts and should be ready to play against Edmonton. He can help improve Chicago’s chances by returning to the second unit alongside Maatta.

Followed blueprint of success

This offseason was a much more important step toward a successful penalty kill than was predicted, especially for Carpenter who didn’t have great numbers with the Golden Knights. The Blackhawks also followed a blueprint laid out on this very site before the season began. That included power killing, exemplified on the Chicago roster by Saad and, to a lesser degree, David Kampf; improvement on defense, most notably from Murphy and from Maatta; and better goaltending, mostly courtesy of Lehner.

Carpenter and Maatta helped execute, but using returning players in better ways and in a better system under Marc Crawford turned out to be critical as well. Crawford’s system followed those that worked best in 2018-19, and he found players capable of executing. That turned the Blackhawks from a shorthanded team near the bottom of the NHL to one at the top.

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