DENVER -- An off day in Colorado before the Chicago Blackhawks take on the Avalanche on Thursday allowed more time to focus on special teams.
A year ago, the team's power-play unit excelled from the start of the season while the Hawks' penalty killing left something to be desired. They languished near the bottom of the league for most of the year, finishing an embarrassing 25th in the NHL.
It’s a very small sample size, but through five games the Hawks are doing nearly everything right in man-down situations. In fact, they’ve scored (1) as many as they’ve given up. The opposition is 1-for-15, good for fourth in the league in the early going.
Against Phoenix on Tuesday, the Hawks didn’t give up a shot on two consecutive key Coyotes’ power plays to open the third period -- and Dave Bolland scored a shorthanded goal to put an exclamation mark on the night.
The Hawks knew they needed to be better on the penalty kill.
“It has to be,” Jonathan Toews said after practice Wednesday. “It’s been one of our goals. Stats wise we want to be at the top of the league. We know we can be. If we accomplish that goal we’re going to win a lot more games.”
Toews is one of the holdovers from a group of veterans that inexplicably struggled last season. They were caught chasing the puck too much giving up good shooting lanes to the opponent.
“I don’t want to get too much into the system side of it, I don’t want to give our secrets away but what it comes down to is the four guys out there being committed to killing the penalty,” fellow holdover Patrick Sharp said. “You see guys like Jamal Mayers come over on the front end. He’s been a penalty killer his whole career. It’s his bread and butter. To have his advice and experience on the penalty kill, it kind of rubs off on everybody.”
So what’s Mayers’ advice?
“We want to be committed to blocking shots and stick to the game plan and be more predictable for each other out there,” he said. “There is a certain level of trust that you have to have and we want to continue to get better.”
That’s pretty simple and the word “predictable” is one coach Joel Quenneville uses often. In this case each of the four players on the ice has to help “cover up” for each other when one goes to get a puck. Quenneville knows good penalty killing when he sees it.
“They’re in sync in the neutral zone and making it difficult for entries with possession or off the rush so I think the guys are doing a good job in that area,” Quenneville said. “They’re taking away the dangerous shots and eliminating seam passes. They’re moving well together.”
There is a lot of coach-speak there, but everyone can understand his satisfaction with his squad working "well together." Even more than the power play the penalty killers have to communicate and read off each other.
“There is a rotation that has to occur,” Mayers said. “Defense included.”
So far so good.
“We all have a collective idea of what we want to do better,” Toews continued. “I think it just comes from the effort. When you’re working hard and moving your feet and have three good units staying fresh throughout a two minute kill, guys are going to get to those lanes. They’re not going to give shooters much time and space.”
And therein lies the key difference between last year and this year -- at least through five games. Less time and space to shoot, which makes for tougher nights for opposing power plays.
Just ask the Coyotes.
• Joel Quenneville has a full roster of 23 players and with Marian Hossa’s return, it’s a healthy roster as well.
“I look back over the last year and it looks like everyone is healthy and things change quickly and that’s what can happen in our business,” Quenneville said. “Its nice knowing guys are competing for ice time.”
• Again Quenneville addressed the immediate difference in the locker room from a season ago.
“You go back a couple years ago the guys really enjoyed being around each other not that they didn’t last year but this group has some more experience, a lot more vocal, more noise on the buses and on planes that we probably didn’t see last year,” Quenneville stated. “That’s a good thing and I think that will only get more entertaining or amusing as we go along.”
Patrick Sharp confirmed a “jovial” and “loud” bus and plane ride to Denver from Phoenix after the Hawks stellar 5-2 win on Tuesday.