Penalty kill helps Blackhawks advance

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks’ penalty kill has come a long way since the beginning of the season.

Once considered a weakness for Chicago for much of the first half of the season, the Blackhawks have turned it into one of their strengths and again a difference-maker in the playoffs.

The St. Louis Blues had 52 minutes, 37 seconds of power-play time against the Blackhawks in six games of their first-round series, and just twice were the Blues able to score. The Blackhawks killed off 27 of 29 power plays in the series, including all six they encountered in Sunday’s 5-1 series-clinching Game 6 victory.

"Well, it obviously was a slow start to the year, but I think we picked it up and we’ve kind of caught fire here over the last part of the season -- last three-quarters to half of the season," Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said. “We’ve been pretty solid on it, but, going forward, we knew it was going to have to be good tonight, and it was huge tonight."

The Blues could have seized control of the game with a power-play goal or two at any point during the first two periods on Sunday. The Blackhawks went to the penalty box five times, including on Marian Hossa’s double-minor for high sticking, in the first two periods. The Blues had a total of 10 minutes of power play in the first 40 minutes, and the Blackhawks denied them the whole time.

Blackhawks forwards Michal Handzus (6:39 of short-handed ice time), Ben Smith (4:44), Marcus Kruger (3:41), Hossa (2:40) and Jonathan Toews (2:12) and defensemen Keith (6:26), Niklas Hjalmarsson (5:31), Brent Seabrook (4:29) and Johnny Oduya (3:34) contributed to the penalty-kill success in the win. Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford stopped 11 power-play shots.

Crawford stopped 43 of 45 shots for a .956 percentage against St. Louis' power play in the series. He had 201 saves on 215 shots in all situations for the entire series.

"I think both our PK and [Crawford] won the series ultimately," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think that was a big factor in us getting through this series."

The Blackhawks had one of the league’s better penalty kills throughout the regular season and playoffs last year. They killed off 69 of 76 power plays for a 90.8 percentage during their Stanley Cup run last season.

The Blackhawks' penalty kill was near the bottom of the league for most of the first half of the 2013-14 regular season, but it began building some momentum after the Olympics. The Hawks killed off 57 of 66 penalties for an 86.4 percentage over the last 22 regular-season games. They finished the regular season tied for 19th in the league with an 81.7 percentage.

Toews was glad they were able to keep it going in the first round.

"It was huge for us," Toews said. "It had to be. I don’t know why we’re going to the box so often, but we did. We found a way to get out of it."