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Perfect penalty kill big part of Blackhawks' success

by Corey Masisak / Chicago Blackhawks
Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger have been important pieces to the PK since day one (Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks).

Marian Hossa scored on a one-timer from the slot on the power play in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals for the Chicago Blackhawks. Henrik Zetterberg had a similar look from a similar place on the ice while on the man-advantage, but Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford was able to deflect the shot into the corner.

Those two sequences were far from the only reason the Chicago Blackhawks lead this series 1-0 after a convincing 4-1 victory Wednesday at United Center. They were two key plays in the first period before the Blackhawks asserted control, and indicative of the way the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs have progressed for Crawford and his fellow penalty killers.

"It would've been [different] if we'd gotten one in on the power play there," Zetterberg said after the game. "We had a few chances, but couldn't really find a way to score a goal."

The Minnesota Wild had similar feelings in the opening round. They had chances, but couldn't find any goals while on the man-advantage.

Chicago is a perfect 20-for-20 on the penalty kill through six games, and the Blackhawks are the only team in the postseason to have not yielded at least two power-play goals.

"We don't become aware of it until you say what you just said," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "We're not thinking about streaks. When things are going well you keep working hard at it, you don't get satisfied, keep looking for ways to improve. That's what we've done with our penalty kill. We definitely want to stay out of the box against this team because that's how they can gain momentum. By being on the power play they can create a lot of chances no matter what we do, but we know it's an important part of our game against Detroit."

The Blackhawks are one of the best teams in the NHL at even strength. They are deep and talented, and look to push the pace and control the puck. That makes taking advantage of opportunities when they can't dominate possession at a premium.

While Chicago eventually will give up a power-play goal, this is not a fluke and it is a big part of why the Blackhawks had such a dominant regular season. They finished with the third-best penalty-kill success rate in the League at 87.2 percent.

Crawford has been great for the Blackhawks in the postseason, but particularly so when shorthanded. The Blackhawks have yielded 33 shots while being shorthanded 20 times, but Crawford has thwarted all of them, and the players in front of him feed off it.

"Maybe confidence is part of it," Toews said. "We're used to seeing guys like Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya or Brent Seabrook or Duncan Keith block all the shots, but a lot of our forwards are getting in the action now, getting into shooting lanes. That's the type of thing we need to be doing in the playoffs. So we're taking that up another level, and our goaltending has been great. Some of those games against Minnesota, we seem to go to the box two, three, four times in a period when we're trying to protect a one-goal lead, so our goaltending has been great.

"First and foremost, we want to avoid being in the penalty box all the time, but if that's the situation we're confident we can do the job."

The Blackhawks are loaded with world-class talent, players like Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Keith, but playing on the penalty kill allows for some of the role players to earn important minutes and provide significant value.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville used Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik as his top penalty-kill forward pairing throughout the season. They led Chicago's forwards in shorthanded ice time during the regular season and continue to do so.

Along with the go-to defense duo of Keith and Hjalmarsson, both have averaged more than three minutes per game on the penalty kill so far in the postseason.

"That's something we worked on this year all the way from the start," Kruger said. "It's been good for us, and like Michael said it's a chance for us to get out there and do something for the team. After you kill off a penalty it feels good."

Added Frolik: "When I got here I didn't play that much, and since I got there I got a good opportunity on the [penalty kill]. It's kind of my role right now and I'm glad I can be in that position. So far it's working good. We still want to improve and get better."

While Toews may have indicated he isn't paying attention to the numbers, Frolik said he takes pride in the perfection to this point.

"For sure, you try to follow the numbers a little bit, but this is a new series against Detroit," Frolik said. "It's a little different team that Minnesota, they got so much skill. They are a very smart team. You have to be careful with these penalties. The first one [in Game 1], they got a few chances. We have to be sharper."

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