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Killing penalties no longer a problem.

Byline: John Dietz jdietz@dailyherald.com

Early last season, the Chicago Blackhawks' penalty kill was nothing short of a raging dumpster fire.

Fifteen of the first 30 times an opponent had a power-play opportunity, a goal was scored on Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov, Marcus Kruger and/or Dennis Rasmussen.

Every bounce went against the Hawks, and nobody seemed willing to step up and block a shot.

Fast forward to this season and it's a different story, thanks to two major changes:

* A new assistant coach in Ulf Samuelsson.

* A young group of penalty killers who are proving inexperience doesn't mean a thing if you play the system to a T and are willing to absorb a 90-mph shot or two along the way.

"The biggest thing with the penalty kill is the belief that you're going to get the job done before the kill starts," said veteran forward Tommy Wingels. "If you lose that confidence, it's very difficult to kill penalties.

"First and foremost, we believe in the system we're running. We believe in each other. We think as a group we can get the job done every single time."

The Hawks finished 24th and 22nd on the penalty kill the past two seasons and it was one of the reasons assistant coach Mike Kitchen lost his job.

Samuelsson has come in and emphasized pressuring opponents at every possible moment -- on dump-ins, bobbled pucks and on entries.

"Those are our pressure points where we can be a little more aggressive and not let the team set up," said Nick Schmaltz, one of the newbies to the PK.

Said coach Joel Quenneville: "Try to make it a little uncomfortable and unsettling."

Since Nov. 1, defensemen Jan Rutta and Gustav Forsling have averaged the most time on the PK. What's amazing is that Rutta, Forsling and Schmaltz came into this season with little or no penalty-kill experience, but they are huge reasons why the Hawks' unit ranks fifth with an 83.5-percent kill rate.

"If you put me out there, I'm going to do my absolute best," Forsling said. "I think I read the game pretty good and I have a pretty good gap. And I can block some shots, too. It's been working out."

It sure has.

Go ahead and count Wingels among those who aren't the least bit surprised. He was adamant that Rutta and Forsling's elite ability to defend 5-on-5 directly translates to their ability to play so well short-handed.

"Really good sticks, really good anticipation," Wingels said. "Those are the kind of guys you want killing. Guys who want to block shots, guys who read the play really well. AaAa

"Add Schmaltzy in there. Yeah, they may be inexperienced, but they do a very good job. Maybe it's that youthful energy; maybe it's that lack of experience that just allows them to go out and play."

In addition to Wingels, other new contributors include Brandon Saad, Connor Murphy, Lance Bouma and John Hayden. All deserve a lot of credit for making it difficult for opponents to capitalize with an extra man.

"When your team takes a penalty, it's usually -- 'Oh, shoot. We're disadvantaged now,' " Wingels said. "But our killers jump up and are ready to do their job. It's a big part of this team."

Of course, Corey Crawford deserves credit as well. Crawford has been spectacular all season in every situation, but especially when short-handed, where his .922 save percentage ranks second among goalies with at least 10 starts.

"Our penalty kill's been great, but he's back there making up for every little mistake that we make," Jonathan Toews said. "He's a big part of that."

* Follow John on Twitter @johndietzdh
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Date:Dec 20, 2017
Words:622
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