Even when the Colorado Avalanche has been at a disadvantage on the ice this season, the team has generally found a way out, often through lane discipline and strong play in net.
Colorado boasts the NHL's best penalty kill since Oct. 10, prevailing in 19 of its 20 short-handed situations (95 percent) over the past seven outings. The Avs fended off every chance against squads like the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning--all teams that rank in the top 11 this season on the power play entering Wednesday night's games.
"We take a lot of pride in it," said defenseman Ryan Graves, who has played the second-most total short-handed minutes on the team (23:49) behind Erik Johnson (32:26). "I think our special teams is something that's going to win us games--power play, penalty kill… At the end of the day it's about how bad you want it, battling for pucks, getting in lanes and being willing to block shots."
Overall, the Avalanche's penalty kill ranks seventh in the NHL (85.7 percent) but has been in nearly unbeatable territory over the last two weeks, illustrated by a six-game streak from Oct. 10 to Oct. 19 that didn't see the Avs surrender a single power-play goal against (15 kills in a row).
Graves credited a number of skaters for the unit's recent success before noting the importance of goaltending. Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz, he said, have made timely saves and denied a few big chances.
"They've bailed us out at times," Graves said. "It's a team effort."
From his unique vantage point, Grubauer said the skaters have cleared the puck well, a result stemming from their ability to read plays and predict opponents' tendencies. That's allowed them to crowd shooting and passing lanes.
"Once you have the puck you have to make sure to get it out," said Grubauer before listing the other keys to success. "Reading the play and being aware of what their tendencies are, what their open lanes are and sacrificing themselves to block some shots."
For a team that's blocked 17 shots on the penalty kill and even found ways to lay a few hits (11) while a man down the ice, strategy has also played a critical role. Avalanche players and head coach Jared Bednar credited assistant coach Nolan Pratt for tailoring plans for certain special-teams situations. Pratt has also been able to offer players in-game perspective and pointers from the bench.
"I think 'Pratter' has done a real good job with our game plan," Bednar said. "We've been flexible on certain nights. We did some different things against Washington that were outside of the box for the way we normally kill, and it worked. So I liked the game plan behind it, and then Nolan's being real clear and presenting that to our guys."
Added Graves: "On the ice, you see it in real-time and you're part of the play so you can miss the bigger picture. When you come to the bench you can ask (Pratt), 'what was that' or 'why did they get that seam or that chance?' He'll have the answer… He's a big part of it behind the scenes."
A penalty-free game in hockey is rare. Accepting the inevitability of short-handed situations, the Avs have kept the pressure on their opponents this season, stealing back momentum more often than not.
"The buy-in from the killers, they take a lot of pride in it," Bednar said. "Generally it's guys that aren't playing the power play and aren't in top-six roles for us. We have a couple of guys that are playing both power play and penalty kill, but for the most part those guys that are killing penalties, they're taking a lot of pride in it. They're sacrificing and that little extra makes a big difference."