Last year, the Chicago Blackhawks proved just how valuable a great penalty-killing effort can be through the regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Despite having a power play that ranked 19th in the regular season (16.7 percent) and 13th out of 16 playoff teams (11.4 percent), the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the second time in four seasons.
A year later, Chicago's season on special teams was a tale of two halves heading into Game 1 of their series against the rival St. Louis Blues on Thursday at Scottrade Center in the Western Conference First Round (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS2, CSN-CH, FS-MW).
Starting out, the Blackhawks' results on the power play and penalty kill flip-flopped from last year's playoffs. The power-play success in the first 41 games far exceeded a lagging penalty kill. Then, during the second 41 games, they flipped again, almost 180 degrees back in the other direction.
"Our power play was great for, say, the first 60 games," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said after practice Wednesday in Chicago. "[It] slowed down at the end. Penalty killing was really tough for the first 40 [games] and I thought it was really good the last 40. So, they might not be trending in the same direction, but I think that we all know how important special teams are and they're going to be against a real good special teams [group] in St. Louis on both sides."
Looking at it statistically, Chicago's special teams had some significant turnover and turbulence this season.
During those first 41 games, the Blackhawks ranked second in the NHL on the power play by scoring 34 goals in their first 137 attempts (24.8 percent). They scored only 16 more goals in the second 41 games on 120 attempts for a 13.3 percent success rate.
Overall, their power-play percentage fell about five points in the second half, to 19.5 percent, which ranked 10th among NHL teams.
Conversely, their penalty killing improved from start to finish. Missing former defense-oriented forwards Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik, the Blackhawks struggled to find chemistry and timing while shorthanded early in the season.
They allowed 30 goals in their first 125 times on the penalty kill for a success rate of 76 percent. That placed them 28th overall in the League. Chicago wound up 19th in the NHL after 82 games, with a success rate of 81.4 percent, gaining almost exactly as many percentage points (five) as the power play lost.
Narrowing the scope to just the second half, the penalty kill numbers were impressive. The Blackhawks successfully killed 107 of 123 opposing man-advantages for a success rate of 87 percent.
Heading into the postseason, Quenneville would rather have it trending this way than how it was to start the year. Each of his teams that won the Cup (2010 and 2013) was good at killing penalties, especially in the playoffs.
"Our penalty-killing was huge for us last year, all year long and in the playoffs," Quenneville said. "That consistency was something that we relied on and got us through a lot of tough moments. Teams didn't really get momentum in those situations, and we could feed off of that as well. It's a situation where I think we've recaptured some of that identity where we feel good even though we've still got to get through the kill. We're much more comfortable going into it than it seemed like when we had some tentativeness when we first began the season."
As for the power play, part of the reason for the decline in the second half can be attributed to injuries that sidelined captain Jonathan Toews and right wing Patrick Kane for the stretch run, not to mention forward Marian Hossa for a few games.
All three, plus a number of other Blackhawks, are ready to see if they can push those special-teams figures higher in the postseason, with the specific goal of defending their championship.
"I'm not sure what the numbers finished up at the end of the season or if it really even matters," said forward Patrick Sharp, who tied Kane for the team lead on the power play in goals (10) and points (25). "I just know as a player that special teams are important and I like our guys out there."
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