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Blackhawks know penalty kill must be better vs. Wild

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- Penalty killing was a big reason the Chicago Blackhawks eliminated the Minnesota Wild from the Stanley Cup Playoffs the previous two years.

It might be key again heading into a third straight postseason series between the Central Division rivals, which starts at United Center on Friday in Game 1 of a Western Conference Second Round series (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports 2).

The Blackhawks, who struggled to kill penalties at the end of the regular season, didn't improve in their Western Conference First Round series against the Nashville Predators. They rank 13th among playoff teams, allowing six power-play goals in 22 times shorthanded (72.7 percent) and know they have to improve quickly. The Wild scored four power-play goals in 12 opportunities against the St. Louis Blues in the first round and their 33.3 percent success rate leads playoff teams.

"When it doesn't work you always try to make some adjustments," Blackhawks center Marcus Kruger said Wednesday after practice. "We're not happy with how that series went in [the penalty-killing] aspect, but we have a new chance here playing Minnesota. They've got a good power play, so we have to get better in that area to be successful."

Chicago dominated that area of the game the past two postseasons against Minnesota.

The Blackhawks won a first-round series against the Wild in 2013 in five games while killing all 17 Wild power plays. Last season Chicago killed 15 of 17 Minnesota power plays in winning their second-round series in six games.

That's a 94.1 percent success rate for the Blackhawks' penalty killing the past two playoff series against the Wild. Success killing penalties was a big part of Stanley Cup championships in 2010 and 2013.

"Our penalty killing has got to be better," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "Some of the goals I think, technically, positionally, [are] some of the things that in the past we don't give up those type of goals. It's something that we've got to rectify from our last series, knowing that, 'Let's prevent their power play from getting excited.'"

Most of the season the Blackhawks didn't have an issue with opposing teams gaining energy from man-advantage situations; Chicago killed about 90 percent of power plays for more than half the season. But that percentage plummeted during the final quarter of the season.

Their success rate started its free fall at the NHL Trade Deadline on March 2 when the Blackhawks subtracted one of their top penalty-killing forwards, Ben Smith, who was traded to the San Jose Sharks for forward Andrew Desjardins.

The Blackhawks allowed 24 power-play goals in 167 times shorthanded through 63 games with Smith, for an 85.6 percent success rate. They allowed 11 power-play goals in 44 times shorthanded during the final 19 games of the regular season without Smith (75.0 percent).

Combined with the series against Nashville, Chicago's success rate shorthanded is 74.2 percent without Smith playing next to Kruger on the top unit.

"I miss Ben because I played with him for a long time, even on the penalty kill," Krueger said. "But it's obviously more than one guy. We've had multiple guys that have disappeared [from the roster] here the last few years and we still have a high [success level killing penalties]. That means our system is pretty good and there's something we're doing right. But you're going to have periods where it's tougher. You just have to get back on a roll as fast as you can."

Quenneville used forward Joakim Nordstrom to fill Smith's penalty-killing role initially and it worked well. Nordstrom's production during 5-on-5 play, however, didn't match Desjardins'.

Nordstrom played the first two games against Nashville, but Desjardins replaced him for the final four games. Desjardins, who logged some shorthanded time against the Predators, likely will start the series against the Wild killing penalties. Like Kruger, he said the Blackhawks are close to fixing their shorthanded woes.

"We've talked about it," Desjardins said. "There are definitely things that we're going to stress and work on. But I think it's a clean slate here going into the next series."

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