Monday night was supposed to provide some relief to the Chicago Blackhawks' stunning penalty-killing woes when they welcomed the Calgary Flames to the United Center. Calgary owning the league's worst power play entering the game should have provided the best possible matchup for a team struggling mightily on the disadvantage.
However, even with the Flames entering that game with a 1-for-25 mark on the power play, the Blackhawks were no match. Chicago surrendered goals on each of its first two penalty kills. Those were the only two goals the team allowed in regulation before Calgary won in a shootout.
The Blackhawks fell to 3-3-1 on the season, which actually isn't all that bad considering how things have gone on the PK. Over seven games, Chicago has allowed 14 power-play goals. No other team in the league has allowed more than eight. They have allowed at least one power-play goal in every game, with opposing power-play units scoring on 53.9 percent of their opportunities.
According to Elias, only four teams since 1993-94 have allowed at least 14 power play goals over their first seven games. All of those came during the 2005-06 season, where penalties spiked due to the tightened enforcement of obstruction infractions. Meanwhile, this is the worst start for Chicago's PK since 1988-89, per Elias.
In the years since Chicago became one of the league's top teams, their best penalty killing season was during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. This fact shared by Mark Lazarus of the Chicago Sun-Times shows both how good the PK unit was on that team vs. how terrible it has been this season:
The #Blackhawks have allowed 14 goals on 26 opposing power plays this season.— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) October 25, 2016
In 2013, they allowed 18 goals on 141 opposing power plays.
That team went on to win the Stanley Cup. In fact, in each of Chicago's recent Stanley Cup-winning seasons, it had a penalty killing rate that put the team in the top 10 in the league. The Blackhawks were fourth in 2009-10, third in 2012-13 and 10th in 2014-15. All other seasons since 2010, Chicago has finished no higher than 19th. Last season, they were 22nd.
As we've seen over the past 10-plus years, the strongest Stanley Cup contenders tend to be particularly strong in these three categories in particular: goal prevention, penalty killing and possession. The former two go hand-in-hand and as a result, the Blackhawks are failing in both so far.
Chicago has allowed just eight goals during five-on-five play -- sixth fewest in the league. That's a really strong performance at evens. They're also among the top 10 teams in possession at this early stage. It's that ghastly penalty kill that is sticking out like a sore thumb and holding the team back in the early going.
The good news for Chicago is that there is absolutely no way it will continue to kill penalties at a 46.1 percent rate. The fact that we're only seven games into the season makes it look way worse than it will be over the large sample. Over the past eight seasons, the Blackhawks' PK has averaged around an 81 percent success rate. This season's PK is obviously on track to finish below that figure, but it's not going to be close to as bad as it has been to start the year.
Certain things will fix themselves on the penalty kill. One of the things they have to fix sooner than later is the sheer number of power plays they are giving up. Chicago has been shorthanded 26 times already, an average of 3.71 PKs per game. Over the previous seven seasons, the Blackhawks had allowed an average of 2.93 PKs per game, so finding a way to get their penalties down will go along way to improving their overall numbers.
Also encouraging for the Blackhawks is that their goaltender has been sensational at even strength. Corey Crawford has a league-best .973 save percentage at evens, having allowed just three even-strength goals over five starts. It all goes south on the power play, where he has allowed 12 goals on 34 shots against. That gives him a less-than-inspiring .907 save percentage overall. He needs to be better on the penalty kill, but you can't hang their struggles on him alone.
No one is going to throw dirt on this team seven games into the season. They've overcome poor penalty killing in previous years to have success. They are starting the season in a deep hole, however. With so many inexperienced players on the roster on top of the overall competitiveness of the Central Division, the margin for error is fairly small.
It's not time to hit the panic button yet, but things have to start changing sooner than later if the Blackhawks want to maintain their status among the elites of the league.