CHICAGO — The last two teams in the NHL playoffs are really good when one of their players is sent to the penalty box. It’s an entirely different situation when they get a power play.
When it comes to penalties in the Stanley Cup finals, the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins might just prefer to keep everyone on the ice. Heading into Game 1 on Wednesday night, goals on special teams have been so scarce for these teams that a couple for either side could tip the series in one direction.
“The special teams are kind of key, if you want to (have) success,” Chicago forward Michael Frolik said Monday. “We try to talk about it all the time ... and make sure we’re on the same page. It’s especially going to be key right now.”
When the Blackhawks are forced to play a man down, Frolik and Marcus Kruger are so persistent it almost resembles an even-strength situation. And the Bruins have hulking defenseman Zdeno Chara and goalie Tuukka Rask, who is swallowing everything at the net these days.
Combine those skilled players with months of practice, and it’s easy to see why the conference champions are such good penalty killers.
“Typically, it’s hard to score in any situation just because at this point everybody is dialed into their systems and as concentrated as you can be as to positioning and not making mistakes and erring on the side of caution,” Boston defenseman Andrew Ference said.
With Frolik and Kruger tying up the action on top of the zone, Chicago has allowed just three goals in 58 power-play opportunities for an astounding 94.8 percent kill rate. Los Angeles got two of them in the Western Conference finals, but one was a meaningless goal by Tyler Toffoli at the very end of the Blackhawks’ 4-2 victory in Game 2.
The 92.5 percent finish for the 2000 New Jersey Devils is the best playoff rate for a Stanley Cup champion in the last 25 years, according to STATS.
“I think they do a good job of fronting shots,” Boston coach Claude Julien said of Chicago’s penalty killers. “You really have to work hard to get the shots through. That’s what they are, they’re very patient; they’re very aggressive when you do lose, I guess, control of the puck. And if they feel they can get on you, they’ll get on you quick. They’ve done a good job that way.”
Pittsburgh had converted an NHL-best 28.3 percent of its power-play chances heading into the Eastern Conference finals against Boston, but the high-powered Penguins went 0 for 15 with the man advantage during the Bruins’ impressive four-game sweep.
One of the lasting images from Boston’s postseason run came with Pittsburgh on the power play in the second period of Game 3. Bruins forward Gregory Campbell broke his right leg when he dove to block Evgeni Malkin’s hard shot, then limped around for more than 30 seconds until Boston cleared the zone and he was able to get off the ice.
Campbell’s gutsy display served as inspiration for the Bruins, and they went on to finish off the Penguins with a 1-0 victory on Friday. But Campbell will miss the remainder of the playoffs, presenting a challenge for the series against Chicago.
“It just means some other guys have to step in and do the job,” Julien said. “(Campbell) is an elite penalty killer for us. Like anything else, when you lose a player like that it certainly hurts your team. But at the same time, there’s also guys that come up and step up and do a great job just like our young Ds did when our three Ds were hurt.”
When it comes to scoring on Boston, whether it’s even strength or on the power play, the last line of defense may be the most difficult one to solve. Rask has been terrific throughout the playoffs, making an NHL-best 497 saves.
Led by the 26-year-old Finn, Boston has yielded seven goals in 52 power-play opportunities for an 86.5 percent kill rate in the postseason.
“We’re facing a goalie that in the last round was as good as any of the goalies we’ve seen over a segment of two years in the playoffs,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said.
While the penalty killing has been great for both sides, the power play for the Blackhawks and Bruins has been, well, powerless. Each team has seven goals with the man advantage in the playoffs. Boston had an NHL-worst 18 power-play goals during the regular season, compared to 25 for Chicago.
Quenneville and Julien have faced a steady stream of questions about the lack of production, and that’s likely to continue in this series — especially with the PK units on each side.