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What’s making the Blackhawks’ power play so good?

The Blackhawks have risen from the ashes on the man advantage so far in 2021. Why?

Toronto Maple Leafs v Chicago Blackhawks
Adam Boqvist, Alex DeBrincat, Patrick Kane and Dylan Strome of the Chicago Blackhawks
Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images

So far in the 2021 NHL season, the Blackhawks have the NHL’s fifth-ranked power play, converting on 34.4 percent of their opportunities. While that percentage has come down in recent games, it’s still a far cry from Chicago’s ‘19-20 percentage of 15.2 percent, which was 28th in the league.

The Blackhawks haven’t had a top-10 power play since the ‘15-16 season.

While the Blackhawks’ power play percentage is destined to fall — their 20.37 shooting percent is seventh-best in the league but only one team (Edmonton) finished higher last season — they are playing noticeably better so far this season.

In every shooting metric, Chicago is better than they were in ‘19-20:

  • Their shot attempts have increased from to a rate of 106.78 per 60 minutes, up from last season’s 91.34
  • Their expected goals rate has climbed to 7.43, up from 6.46

One of the reasons for this is the power-play quarterback abilities of one Adam Boqvist. He has just two assists this season, but those numbers — which match his output from last season — don’t indicate just how good he is on the power play. When goals have been scored with Boqvist on the ice, he’s earned a point in two-third of the time, and his recent absence has been felt.

In six games with Boqvist, the power play’s rate of shots on goal per 60 minutes was at 69.77. In the last four games, with Boqvist on the COVID-19 Protocol list, that rate has dropped to 54.2. The most illuminating number is in the goal column: the power play had eight goals in six games with Boqvist and has three goals in five games without him. A defenseman has recorded a point on none of those goals.

Boqvist’s power-play success stems from moving the puck to forwards for their shots, which allows the Blackhawks’ forwards to generate more pressure, as shots from forwards are closer in and have a higher likelihood of ending in goals. For example, both Duncan Keith and Dylan Strome have five power-play shots. Duncan Keith’s expected goals number is at 0.27, while Strome’s is at 1.2.

The Blackhawks’ forwards shooting more has translated into a better looking power play in terms of shot pressure. The heat maps below details where the Blackhawks are shooting from while on the power play. The first image is from the ‘19-20 season, the second image from this season. The orange represents more shots while the purple represents fewer. The power play took shots from just two locations last season, the point and the doorstep, which makes the power play less dangerous.

Now compare that to this:

The Blackhawks have varied their shooting locations more this season, taking more shots from between the faceoff circles and from within. With two goal scorers adept from those positions in Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik, it’s been a good strategy.

It’s not just the quarterback that’s changed things for the Blackhawks though. Kubalik, although in limited time this season, has made a noticeable impact. Kubalik has scored two goals and created three rebounds and has the team lead with six points while playing just 19:57 so far. He’s also scored a point on each power-play goal he’s been on the ice for.

The second-place power-play scorer, Dylan Strome, is also making an impact with a team-leading three goals. Strome is tied for the most high-danger chances with Andrew Shaw (four).

The real secret has been the Blackhawks allowing their goal scorers — mainly DeBrincat and Kubalik in this case — to shoot the puck. Kubalik has taken more shots per 60 this season and DeBrincat is at almost the same pace as last year and that’s paying off — they’ve scored four goals and created four rebound opportunities between them.

The Blackhawks have yet to see the dominant performance from Patrick Kane on the power play that they’re used to. The Hawks’ usual offensive generator has just one goal and three assists on the power play, getting a point on just 57.14 percent of the goals he’s been on ice for.

He finished last season with an 85.19 percent mark, which means he could start increasing his production soon. But the Blackhawks’ increased independence from him is also a good thing, as it means they’re getting more production from other players.

The Hawks’ power play won’t likely remain this good forever, or even 45 more games. It’s already showing signs of dropping off, having scored just two goals in their last four games. But DeBrincat’s return on Tuesday helped and the return of Boqvist later could similarly lead to a resurgence. The power play is finally utilizing the talent given in more interesting and dangerous ways and so far that’s paid off.