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Backstrom, brains are keys to Wild's PK success

Thursday, 03.26.2009 / 1:00 AM / NHL Insider

By Adam Schwartz - NHL.com Staff Writer

"We have a good goalie, we are lucky and we work hard at the penalty kill. Luck is important. When you look at all of the teams in the League, they all kill penalties very similarly. There's not a ton of things that you could do different that will pay off. You need the goalie to make the save at the right time, you need to cut down the scoring chances in the high slot. If they get it from the side it's not as bad for the goalie, but everyone tries that."
-- Jacques Lemaire

The Minnesota Wild aren't known for scoring goals. Preventing goals, however, is a franchise specialty. And part of that success stems from a top-notch penalty-killing unit which ranks in the top five in the NHL for the fourth-straight season.

The Wild's penalty kill, masterminded by coach Jacques Lemaire, is currently second in the League and the best in the Western Conference at 87.1 percent. They have allowed an NHL-low 34 power-play goals.

Even though most would attribute sound defensive positioning and active blocking of passing lanes as keys to a successful penalty kill, Lemaire believes a goalie has to be a team's best penalty killer. It just so happens Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom is one of the League's best. 

"We have a good goalie, we are lucky and we work hard at the penalty kill," Lemaire said. "Luck is important. When you look at all of the teams in the League, they all kill penalties very similarly. There's not a ton of things that you could do different that will pay off. You need the goalie to make the save at the right time, you need to cut down the scoring chances in the high slot. If they get it from the side it's not as bad for the goalie, but everyone tries that.

"We cut down the scoring chances in the high slot by covering it,” Lemaire said. “Somebody has to be there to cover it. Somebody has to be there every time that there's one of their players there, you have to cover him. And if you do miss him, you'll get a scoring chance, and if the goalie doesn't stop it, your average goes down and that's how it works."

Minnesota center Eric Belanger, one of the club's top penalty killers, says chemistry is important while killing a penalty. 

"I think one of the main things is that we're all on the same page," Belanger told NHL.com. "Combination-wise, it's always the same two forwards out there at the same time and the same defensemen out there at the same time. We read and react well and we are playing with confidence on the penalty kill, and the system we are playing we believe in. It seems that we are making the right reads out there, and our goaltender is the primary reason why our penalty kill is so good."

Another reason for the Wild's successful penalty kill is keeping the penalty killers fresh. Minnesota has been shorthanded only 263 times this season, the second-fewest times in the League.

"One of the things that helps is that we take very few penalties in games," Wild defenseman Nick Schultz said. "We're not killing six or seven penalties a night. If a team is undisciplined and killing a lot of penalties it wears the penalty killers out. Good goaltending is also a big key to our penalty kill, and having the guys buy into how we are playing it is important as well. We try to do a good job of trying to limit their chances because specialty teams are important."

While Lemaire and the Wild skaters can't say enough about Backstrom and his importance to killing penalties, Backstrom said he doesn't worry about whether or not his team is shorthanded.

"You have to stop the puck; it doesn't matter whether you're shorthanded or not," Backstrom said. "You have to know what's going on in the game and what the other team is trying to do. As a goalie you just try to stop the puck because that's your job."

Other players, however, do alter their game during the penalty kill and watch video to learn other teams' power-play plans.

"A lot of times you know before games what another team's tendencies are, whether they want to get the one-timers from up top or they want to make plays down low," Belanger said. "There's a lot of different things that you study before games to get ready. For instance, when we played against Edmonton we knew that (Sheldon) Souray wants to shoot the puck, so we know where he is on the ice all the time and you can move quicker on him to take away his one-timer because he has such a good shot."

To take away a powerful point man's shot, a forward generally must play more aggressive than he usually would. When there isn't one of the best shooters in the League going against the Wild, they try to be more passive and not allow cross-seam passes. But if the opposition can't hold onto the puck the Wild try to take advantage of the situation.

"We try to be aggressive when we see a puck getting bobbled or a guy with the puck with has his back turned to us, we'll try to put pressure on him," said Minnesota forward Antti Miettinen. "Being passive helps, too, because it is important to get in the passing lanes and block the shooting lanes and being active. Those are the little things that can really help you. It's important not to just stand around there, but to have a purpose."

The defensemen, however, see different challenges than the forwards deep in their zone. 

"It's tough because a lot of teams, if they have a big body, they will throw him in front and you can't really move those guys," Schultz said. "They will also have a guy in the backdoor area, and there's a lot of different lanes and a lot of different options, especially down low, which is where it's tough for teams to make that quick play and get that chance. I think it's limiting their quality chances and where they get those chances from. I think if you keep the chances to the outside of the rink it's harder for them to score."

Contact Adam Schwartz at aschwartz@nhl.com


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