With a two-man advantage, the Chicago Blackhawks have looked relatively inept in recent seasons
The fact the Chicago Blackhawks lead the Western Conference at this time would seem amazing to some if they looked solely at the squad’s special-teams numbers.
Past struggles of the penalty kill have been well documented, and while the Blackhawks have been turning around those October doldrums, the penalty-kill percentage is still 67.3. That’s more than 7 percentage points worse than the 29th-place Calgary Flames (75.0).
The penalty kill having a better run of late has put more scrutiny on a powerplay that’s up to its old, bad habits. Specifically with a two-man edge.
On its face, the Blackhawks’ 18.2 percent success rate while up a man (or two) doesn’t seem so bad. It ranks 14th in the league, and it’s far better than the league’s worst mark (Ottawa, 8.9).
But this is one of those instances when the eye test means more than the stats. So let’s talk about why the Chicago Blackhawks’ 5-on-3 powerplay needs a new look.
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Previous game exacerbated issues
Tuesday’s result at Winnipeg turned on the Blackhawks failing miserably in an extended 5-on-3.
There are two issues with what the Blackhawks do up a two men. First is the personnel, and second is the playcalling.
The former being a problem may sound like a crazy statement, considering the kind of guys coach Joel Quenneville can roll out. But sometimes, some of the league’s better players coming together doesn’t necessarily mean success.
So then comes the issue of playcalling. When this unit is on the ice, the idea is to get the puck down low to one of Toews or Panarin. The problem is, that plan apparently doesn’t call for the Blackhawks to move themselves at all — just the puck.
It’s really easy for even three penalty killers to prevent a powerplay from converting of the opposing players are hardly moving. The PKers only have to track a puck, in that instance. It’s what they’re paid to do.
We saw the Winnipeg PKers so effectively breaking up the Blackhawks’ pre-planned mode of attack in their 5-on-3 that the Jets almost managed an odd-man break down two players. That’s a sign your PP attack plan isn’t working.
How to fix these issues
I’m obviously not an NHL coach, but I at least watch enough hockey to try and offer a suggestion or two for the Blackhawks’ 5-on-3 powerplay.
Moving bodies would make a huge difference. All five guys on that top unit are really solid in the offensive zone. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to hit one another with pinpoint passes on the fly and mix things up a bit.
Opponents are used to seeing only Toews and Panarin as options down low, with passes coming cross-ice from Kane. There’s no problem with feeding Toews and Panarin — you’d like to get the puck close to the net for shots. But it doesn’t have to be pushed to those two through the same exact passing play each time.
Maybe have Keith or Seabrook pinch in and dish the puck back out, or down low. Maybe have Kane take it in close and then pass it back to the point, or move it to Panarin or Toews in a different spot than where they normally stand. Just move bodies while also moving the puck.
If I would make one personnel change on the first unit, it would be moving Seabrook over to the second unit, or at least having another forward on the first unit. There’s really not a purpose for having two defenders on the back end of your top powerplay. Keith can quarterback the unit well enough.
Now, 5-on-3 powerplays may not happen often enough to be that concerned about the Blackhawks struggling on them. But this has seemingly been a constant issue under Coach Q, and not taking advantage of such situations can turn a whole game around. We saw that Tuesday.