But as former Blackhawk Michael Frolik said during his stop in Chicago with the Winnipeg Jets earlier in the week, physical tools are just part of the equation when it comes to the penalty kill. What made Frolik and Kruger one of the best penalty-killing duos in the NHL last season was communication and chemistry, along with those physical attributes.
“Yes, there’s communication in knowing where somebody is,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville explained on Friday. “You got to have them there. I know when you watch it after on the tape, if the guy’s not there, then you’re almost out of position. I think there’s kind of a mindset where you got to know where each other are almost to the point where you got to be exactly at the right spot. You can work with that in time. We try to make it where there’s not a lot of hesitation, and expectations are everybody’s got to be there and do the right things.”
Kruger and Saad knew developing such a bond wouldn’t come instantly, but now that they have spent some time together on the penalty kill, they believe that bond is beginning to get there. For the Blackhawks, who rank last in penalty-kill percentage, that’s positive news.
“Maybe it didn’t click right away, but it gets better and better and getting to that level where it’s pretty good all the time,” Kruger said Friday. “It’s not going to be perfect from the start, probably. That’s hard to find, but hopefully we can get better and better and by the end of the year be on the top there.”
The Blackhawks were near the top of the league in penalty killing last season. They ranked third in the regular season with an 87.2 penalty-kill percentage and third in the playoffs with a 90.8 percentage. This season that percentage has fallen to 74.4.
One of the primary reasons for the Blackhawks’ penalty-kill struggles this season has been Frolik’s absence. Quenneville spent most of October rotating players in and out of Frolik’s old spot beside Kruger and wasn’t able to find much consistency in any of the players.
Quenneville has chosen to use Saad more often with Kruger as of late, and that decision has started to pay off. Saad played a season-high 2:10 of shorthanded ice time Wednesday and helped the Blackhawks kill off both of their penalties in a 4-1 win over the Jets.
“I think last game was our best game for sure,” Saad said Friday. “It’s only going to get better and build with time. It’s like anything else; it’s a process and being more comfortable with each other.
“It’s almost like chemistry, and gaining chemistry is through communication. The more we do it together and the more we play out there, it’s only going to get better.”
Quenneville has been pleased with his team’s penalty kill in recent weeks. He saw improvement even before their recent stretch where they have killed off 10 of their last 12 penalties.
“I think we progressed going into that stretch where we didn’t have many kills, but at the same we were still giving up one a game,” Quenneville said. “I think our numbers weren’t reflecting the progress that we were showing. The on-ice movement in our zone, particularly disrupting their entry and clears and blocking shooting lanes was much more efficient, much more predictable. Hopefully, we can get a pattern with the killers and then not just that expectation on getting it done on the ice.”