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Pressure, chemistry key Hawks' near-flawless PK

Thursday, 06.06.2013 / 8:34 PM / Features
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Pressure, chemistry key Hawks\' near-flawless PK
Chicago has survived 51 of 53 shorthanded situations in the Stanley Cup Playoffs thanks to a penalty-kill unit that relies on steady pressure and uncanny chemistry to get the job done.

LOS ANGELES -- Killing penalties isn't a glamorous task, but when the Chicago Blackhawks get rolling shorthanded, it can be a beautiful scene to witness.

The defending champion Los Angeles Kings were dynamite on the penalty kill during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, erasing more than 92 percent of opponents' chances with the man-advantage, but the Blackhawks have been even better in 2013.

Chicago has been shorthanded 53 times in these playoffs, and the Blackhawks' penalty killers have been triumphant on 51 occasions, including 10-for-11 against Los Angeles in this year's ongoing Western Conference Final.

"We definitely take pride in our PK, whether it's blocking shots, keeping the puck out of the zone," Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "[Goalie Corey Crawford] has been outstanding. … You know, I think it is helping us win games; that's the end goal. Our PK has been a big part of that. L.A. has a big power play. Detroit obviously had a good power play. We'll try to go in with our chances and try to be solid on it."

Los Angeles had a couple of chances Tuesday to blow open Game 3 of this series on the power play, but the Chicago penalty killers were dominant. It was the biggest reason the Blackhawks were still in a game they were being outplayed in until the final moments.

Chicago took four straight penalties in Game 3, the biggest a double-minor for high-sticking on No. 1 defenseman Duncan Keith. The Kings put six shots on goal in nearly 10 minutes of power-play time, but quality chances were few and the Blackhawks were able to hang around because of it.

The Kings had three shots on goal (and one missed attempt) on their first power play of the game, but none of the shots were from inside 40 feet. Los Angeles' second try with the extra man was a futile one: three shots blocked and another that missed the net.

Keith's double-minor could have been the turning point in the game. Kings defenseman Slava Voynov had scored less than two minutes before and L.A. had a 2-0 lead with a rocking Staples Center crowd that sensed a chance for a blowout.

The four minutes passed without incident. Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin had a shot early that Crawford held for a faceoff. There were two other point tries that were blocked. It was about as close as a team can get to a perfect four-minute kill.

Los Angeles scored an empty-net goal in its 3-1 victory, getting to within 2-1 in the best-of-7 series which continues Thursday at Staples Center (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

"We've been strong all year," Crawford said. "It seems like we're taking care of every little detail. Guys are blocking shots, and when it is time to put pressure, we're able to put pressure and get the puck and get it down. I think [in Game 3], we got into a little bit of trouble with penalties and we're able to kill some big ones off."

The two breakout stars on the Chicago PK are fourth-line forwards Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik. Each played in a more offensive role earlier in his career and were touted prospects.

On this team this is the role they can play, and a way for them to earn minutes that aren't there in offensive situations because of the depth and talent up front. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said it was an experiment early in the season to pair them together on the PK, and they've become the team's go-to duo.

Unless they were just on the ice for a shift before the penalty, or one of them is in the box, Kruger and Frolik start every penalty kill then are typically followed by a star-studded duo of Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa.

"Yeah, they've been huge," defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said of Kruger and Frolik. "That's been one of the biggest reasons for us having success on the PK so far. Last year, when we didn't do that well, I think we had way too many shots [against], just clear points. Pretty much every night, their D-men just had a lot of clear lanes to shoot the puck.

"This year, I think we're doing a way better job, especially the forwards, just being in the shooting lane. The way they work together as a unit up there, it's been really good. The way they're doing their job in the neutral zone, just overall the penalty kill has been much better this year."

The Blackhawks' philosophy on the PK is clear: pressure, pressure and more pressure. They pester the opponent in the neutral zone and make it hard to gain the offensive zone. Once a team sets up, Chicago's forwards rarely sit back in a standard box formation.

Kruger, Frolik, Toews and Hossa are great skaters, and they like to hound players with the puck on the perimeter instead of letting them survey the situation and make plays.

"Two guys that were really good: John Madden, Jay Pandolfo; a tandem pair, two smart players, the same as [Kruger] and [Frolik]," said Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya, who played with Madden and Pandolfo with the New Jersey Devils. "They have that way of being smart, read off of each other, know where to go, not to go, put themselves in positions. They're not huge shot-blockers, but if you're smart enough to put yourself in the right position, you don't have to block as many shots. They show that consistently all the time.

"It's tough to say why it works. I think it's chemistry. For those guys, obviously they don't get enough credit. It makes it a lot easier for the D too. All the D feel the same way. When you're on the PK, you feel very safe and it feels very solid. That you might have to block a shot or two, that's fine. Just that overall feeling and the confidence going into PKs, it's good."

Chicago's defensemen have been great at clearing out bodies so Crawford can see point shots, and they also help him clean up any loose ends after the first attempt. The Blackhawks will certainly have a big challenge in Game 4 with Keith suspended because of his high-sticking incident in Game 3.

That could put more pressure on Crawford, but he has been fantastic in shorthanded situations in the postseason. He's allowed two goals: a point shot through traffic from Detroit Red Wings rookie Jakub Kindl in the second round and a desperation attempt from Los Angeles rookie Tyler Toffoli late in Game 2 when the outcome was no longer in doubt.

Dominating teams at even strength, then frustrating them on the penalty kill -- it was a blueprint for a championship in Los Angeles last season and one Chicago is proving equally able to follow.

"The goalie is always the most important penalty kill guy too," Hjalmarsson said. "Corey has been good, as I said before. We're proud of the way we played so far. We just have to try to keep it going."

Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer