Blackhawks fans have had to face a lot of disappointments this season. There's no question of that. But one of the worst disappointments, and one of the reasons the 'Hawks have found themselves in such a poor position in the standings, has been their atrocious penalty kill for most of the season.
Last season the Blackhawks excelled when shorthanded. They had a prized, top-five penalty kill at 85.3 percent and 13 shorthanded goals, best in the NHL. No other team was double-digits in shorthanded goals last year.
This season has been the exact opposite. The Blackhawks penalty-killing unit has been well below 80 percent and has had only six shorthanded goals, 17th in the NHL.
For most of the season, the Blackhawks penalty kill was stuck at around 77 percent. For those of you who aren't good at math, that means the Blackhawks get scored on roughly once every four times shorthanded.
This made them a bottom-five penalty-killing team, only better than teams like Toronto and Edmonton.
That's embarrassing for the defending Stanley Cup champions who had a fourth ranked 85.3 percent penalty kill last season.
October was actually a very successful month for the 'Hawks shorthanded. They killed 36 of 42 powerplays (85.7 percent). It looked like the 'Hawks would be a top-five shorthanded team for a second straight season.
However, the tables turned quickly. November was the arguably the worst month for the Blackhawks, not only for the penalty kill, but for their record as well. They gave up 13 powerplay goals in 50 times shorthanded (74 percent), so it's not a coincident they had a 7-6-1 record in that month.
The penalty kill struggles continued into December, which saw them surrender nine powerplay goals in 38 times shorthanded (76.3 percent).
There was little improvement in January and February. The 'Hawks killed 58 of 75 powerplays (77.3 percent).
It was so bad I literally cringed every time the 'Hawks were sentenced to two in the box. Their penalty kill lacked the aggressiveness, pressure and effort that made it so successful last year.
It wasn't until the calendar page turned to March that the Blackhawks have started to kill penalties efficiently. So far in March the 'Hawks have killed 26 of 30 (86.6 percent), which includes killing 12 of 13 in their last five games.
The Blackhawks penalty kill currently sits at 79.2 percent, 25th in the NHL. However, if they keep killing penalties at this pace, they could very well get above 80 percent before the season ends, giving them a better chance to reach the postseason.
Considering they are one of the top offensive teams in the league, if the 'Hawks can go into the playoffs with the ability to kill 85 percent of opposing powerplays, which they have shown they can do over the past four weeks, they will have a major advantage.
The Blackhawks are the second-least penalized team in the NHL, being shorthanded only 235 times.
If they can kill the very few powerplay opportunities they allow other teams, they will be tough for elite powerplay teams in the Western Conference like Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose, to beat.
So what can the sudden resurgence of efficient penalty killing be attributed to?
Well, I would argue that the addition of skilled faceoff and shot-blocker Ryan Johnson undoubtedly has something to do with it. Since being added in the lineup, the 'Hawks penalty kill has been steadily improving. He wins 69.2 percent of his draws and is a very aggressive two-way forward.
But I think perhaps an even bigger factor has been the addition of Chris Campoli. Despite all the controversy about Campoli not being the shutdown, penalty-killing defenseman the Blackhawks needed to grab at the deadline, Campoli has been exactly what they needed.
He averages around a minute and a half on the penalty kill. In Toronto, he spent 4:11 on the penalty kill, second only to Brent Seabrook. In Dallas, he spent 4:12 on the penalty kill, most on the team. In both those games, the Blackhawks nullified every powerplay.
And you saw the stats since he came to Chicago on Feb. 28, the 'Hawks penalty killing has been much improved.
Coincidence? Maybe. But I think no matter how you spin it, Campoli has been a big factor in turning the tide on the penalty kill.
However, I would also argue it's due to a change in mentality and an increased sense of desperation. They are finally being more aggressive, challenging shooters, blocking shots and clearing pucks. This is, without question, a product of playing must-win games every night.
Whatever you attribute the improvement of the penalty kill to, there's no doubt that if they can maintain it, their playoff chances are certainly more likely, as are the chances they will go deep in the postseason.
Playing shorthanded has been one of the weaknesses of the 'Hawks this season. If they can fix it, and they're demonstrating that they can, they will be a tough opponent in the weeks to come.
Thanks for reading!