Listen, nobody is expecting this year's penalty kill to remain on par with last year's.
John Madden, Kris Versteeg and Brent Sopel were major factors on last year's unit and are surely missed.
With that said, something else is going on and a failure to fix it will result in the defending champions watching the playoffs from Toews' condo.
Here's a little-known fact for everyone: Mike Kitchen is in charge of the Blackhawks' penalty kill this season. Mike Kitchen is that guy who stands in the spot once occupied by the more popular and intimidating John Torchetti. Why hasn't Kitchen taken a little more heat for running a penalty killing unit that now ranks *gulp* 28th in the NHL?
Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa are still a penalty kill forward pairing. Dave Bolland is out there too, just like he was last year. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook? Niklas Hjalmarsson? Yup, there they are.
There is not only a lot of salary invested in these penalty killing units but plenty of expertise. I remember seeing 19 and 81 on the penalty kill last season and almost expecting a shorthanded goal, or at least an opportunity. Last year, these players were damn good at what they did. Penalty killing situations often led to gained momentum in the Blackhawks' favor. It's been nothing but the opposite this season. Why would that suddenly change?
I'm beginning to suspect that the real issue beyond the "low compete level" and "lost puck battles" is a problem with aggressiveness and technique. Penalty killing isn't done in exactly the same manner by every team in the NHL. Some coaches like their penalty kill to be as aggressive as possible, pressuring the point-men at all times and forcing the opponent into faster decisions. Other coaches like to sit back and cover all passing lanes, hoping for the opponent to make the first mistake.
Is it possible that Mike Kitchen came in and changed this team's penalty killing philosophy from aggressive to passive?
It's an explanation that makes as much sense as any. If so, they need to make the switch back as quickly as possible. With the man advantage, at even strength OR on the kill, this Blackhawks team thrives on setting the tempo and playing aggressively. Sitting back and allowing easy entry into the zone (like Fernando Pisani on Dallas' first goal last night) does not bode well for this team's penalty killing. That is what slow and less talented hockey teams do. The Hawks lost some bodies, but if Hossa, Toews, Keith and Seabrook are on the ice, I want them playing aggressively.
Speaking of Kitchen, here's an article from the Miami Herald
that discusses the Florida Panthers' improved penalty kill this season. The players have raved about the "new system" of penalty killing since training camp. Who ran the Panthers' penalty kill last year? Mike Kitchen.
Joel Quenneville indicated in the postgame last night that penalty killing would be a point of emphasis in upcoming practices.
He may want to start by talking to his assistant coach.
Blackhawks, Chicago Blackhawks, Dave Bolland, Joel Quenneville, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Mike Kitchen, Stanley Cup Finals
Blackhawks, Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks, Dave Bolland, Duncan Keith, Florida Panthers, Joel Quenneville, John Torchetti, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Mike Kitchen, NHL, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Penalty Kill