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Blackhawks hoping penalty-kill woes on way out

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- They've been down this road before this season, so the Chicago Blackhawks are cautiously optimistic about their recent performance on the penalty kill.

The defending Stanley Cup champions, ranked 28th in the NHL on the penalty kill (74.7 percent), haven't allowed a power-play goal in their past two games as they prepare to face the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday at United Center (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Blackhawks have gone 5-for-5 in wins against the Florida Panthers on Sunday and Dallas Stars on Tuesday, and the hope in Chicago is it's a sign the troubled penalty kill is turning around for good. It's just too soon to tell.

"It was a good night," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said after the game against the Panthers. "It's almost to the point where we can talk about the positives of the PK having one of those zero nights and hopefully we can start trending in the other direction."

There was a bit of hesitancy in his voice at the time, because the trend in killing penalties has been mostly negative this season. After finishing third in the NHL in the regular season and 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it's definitely odd to see the Blackhawks at the bottom of that stat category.

They did lose a great penalty killer, fourth-liner Michael Frolik, who was traded to the Winnipeg Jets, but one player couldn't make that much difference. The question, then, is, what's the biggest problem?

"We've [had] pretty much the same system as last year and [we're] going back and forth [looking at] what we did, but we need to execute better," said center Marcus Kruger, who along with Frolik got a lot of credit for last season's penalty-killing success. "It's up to us here in the locker room to do a better job."

That much was clear following a 3-2 shootout loss last Friday against the visiting Anaheim Ducks, who scored on their lone power-play opportunity. The goal, scored by Ryan Getzlaf, came with one second remaining in the Blackhawks' only penalty of the game.

"That's when we hit rock bottom," Quenneville said at the time. "They scored with one second to go, one power play … but it's been a disaster [this season]."

The defeat left Chicago (22-6-5) winless in three straight games at that point, having allowed at least one power-play goal in four straight games. They'd fended off six of 11 man-advantage situations (54.5 percent) in that span to nearly drop to the bottom of the NHL in PK rankings.

The Blackhawks' recent success has bumped them up a spot, to 28th, but they're still ranked last on home ice (69.8 percent). Other than breaking down video, gaining confidence might be the biggest help in sustaining a long-term turnaround.

Going 10-for-10 in their past two games is a good start, but they need to keep it rolling against the Flyers and into a weekend back-to-back.

"It definitely would help if you got a couple [successful kills] in a row," said defenseman Sheldon Brookbank, who's been a bigger part of killing penalties this season. "You kind of build off it. You do a couple things right out there and you start feeling better about yourself, then maybe you're not second-guessing where you should be going or if you should be jumping in on a guy. Once you get things rolling, you just react."

Complicating the situation is an injury to No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford, who could miss up to three weeks with a lower-body injury that occurred late in the first period against the Panthers. The Blackhawks are going with two rookie goalies on the active roster, Antti Raanta and Kent Simpson.

Raanta has looked solid going 4-0-1 to start his NHL career, but it's always a little nerve-wracking for coaches to run rookies out so often in such prominent roles, especially without a proven veteran on the bench.

Raanta's been good helping the Blackhawks kill penalties so far, but it's just as much about the defensive effort in front of him. Their struggles while shorthanded have been one of the only shortcomings for Chicago to date; the Blackhawks have 49 points to sit atop the NHL standings.

They also lead in goals scored (122) by a wide margin, so if they can get the penalty-kill going consistently, the numbers should get even better.

"I think the [biggest] thing is we are kind of hesitant and slow reacting," center Michal Handzus said. "We have to get back to reacting right away. [Then] we can close the lanes and close out shots and we'll be better."

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