Blackhawks' record start thanks to penalty kill

CHICAGO -- Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson recently described the penalty kill this season as one seeking “revenge” against opponents’ power plays.

The Blackhawks’ penalty kill wasn’t something the team was proud of last season. They ranked 27th in the league with a 78.1 penalty-kill percentage and allowed 51 goals on 233 short-handed chances. It was sometimes embarrassing as opponents scored multiple power-play goals in nine games, including five by the Vancouver Canucks on Nov. 6, 2011.

Heading into this season, the Blackhawks understood their penalty kill had to improve if they were going to improve. Through 17 games, it has, and they have.

The Blackhawks can attribute their record-setting 14-0-3 start to the season to plenty of factors, but none has been more important than their penalty-kill success. The Blackhawks rank third with an 88.7 penalty-kill percentage and have given up seven goals on 62 chances this season.

After the Blackhawks set the NHL record for consecutive points to start a season with Friday’s 2-1 win over the San Jose Sharks -- a game that included a Blackhawks’ short-handed goal and killing off all four power plays -- coach Joel Quenneville proudly spoke of how far his penalty kill has come in a season.

“Special teams on a lot of nights can be the difference,” Quenneville said. “[Friday], definitely, you can say the key factor was our PK. Everybody takes a part of that, goaltending as well. But it was certainly an area we wanted to make sure we improved upon this year, and the guys have been very diligent in doing the right thing.”

The Blackhawks’ penalty kill has especially been vital because they’ve played in so many close games. One goal has decided 11 of their 17 games. A power-play goal here or there and the Blackhawks could have seen their streak stopped anywhere in the season’s first five weeks.

They weren't as fortunate last season. Chicago allowed 13 power-play goals on 53 chances for a 75.5 percent penalty-kill rate last season through 17 games.

“There’s a lot of things, probably a combination of things, that have helped,” Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. “I think getting key contributions from a lot of different players has helped. When you have that depth, everything is easy. It doesn’t come down to one or two guys. It’s a group effort; it’s a team effort.”

Defensemen Keith, Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya and forwards Jonathan Toews, Dave Bolland, Patrick Sharp, Marcus Kruger, Michael Frolik and Marian Hossa have all been essential on the penalty kill. Rookie Brandon Saad has also been given more time on it recently, and he scored the team’s first short-handed goal of the season Friday.

Kruger and Frolik, who also play together on the fourth line, have been penalty-kill superstars this season.

“Certainly Kruges and Fro carved out a niche for us,” Quenneville said. "That's helped us in other areas as well."

The Blackhawks’ penalty kill has also proved more important this season because they’ve been allowing opponents more power plays. Chicago allowed an average of 2.8 power plays a game last season, and that’s up to 3.7 this season.

Chicago is bouncing back on the penalty kill after allowing a power-play goal. Just once this year has an opponent scored more than one power-play goal. Opponents have been shut out on the power play in 11 games.

All in all, Hjalmarsson feels like the Blackhawks have turned a weakness from last season into a strength.

“Just being in shooting lanes, having a good structure, get pucks out, goaltending has been unbelievable so far -- it’s a lot of elements that affect the penalty kill,” Hjalmarsson said. “If you have a good specials team, it’s going to win a lot of games for you during a season. So far, it’s been [going] really well. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling.”