Entering Thursday's game against the Ottawa Senators, the Blue Jackets killed 29-of-32 (90.6 percent) penalties, including 17 in a row.
Their penalty-killing streak ended in that game thanks to an empty-net goal from Erik Karlsson in the final minute, but the Blue Jackets went right back at it against two teams with talent-laden power play units in Nashville and San Jose.
In the fast-paced NHL, special teams have become increasingly important, and the players entrusted with either killing penalties or capitalizing on power plays can alter the game in a matter of seconds.
It's no secret that a big part of Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella's hockey philosophy integrates blocked shots and high intensity throughout each shift, and that has translated to a high-pressure, aggressive penalty kill that's helped gain them some traction.
Matt Calvert is one of the Blue Jackets' go-to guys while shorthanded, and it should be no surprise with the foundation of his game being hustle and hard work. Calvert said the team wasn't happy with their penalty killing last season, and feels there's always room for improvement.
“I don’t think we were happy with the place we were in (with penalty killing) last year,” Calvert said. “That’s one of the things we definitely need to improve on. You look at all good teams, and special teams is a big part of it.”
The Blue Jackets killed off 80.2 percent of penalties incurred during the 2014-15 campaign -- not nearly good enough or where they wanted to be. Their power play, however, was strong and scored some big goals throughout the year, but they knew that their shorthanded play had to get better to win consistently.
“Our power play took care of the business last year, so I think we’re going to have to help out a little more this year,” Calvert said. “A few little tweaks systematically, but other than that, it’s just about working hard, blocking shots and getting a big kill for the team.”
Those changes, both systematically and mentally, have helped the Blue Jackets rise from the depths in the penalty killing category; after a 7-for-8 effort against Nashville and San Jose, they are hovering just shy of 81 percent (80.8) overall, good enough for 14th in the NHL after a disastrous start.
Tortorella, along with assistant coach Brad Larsen (who is in charge of the team's penalty kill), are starting to see the results, and they've gotten some help from personnel both new and old. One of the new faces is Gregory Campbell, the 31-year-old veteran and Stanley Cup champion who came over this summer from the Boston Bruins.
Campbell has been a top-of-the-rotation penalty killer wherever he's played, and he's logging plenty of shorthanded ice time in Columbus.
“Big penalty kills are usually momentum changers in games,” Campbell said. “Whether it’s an early kill you get under your belt or it’s a 5-on-3, it can really boost the team. So that’s why there’s so much emphasis on the power play and the penalty kill, and it’s really a privilege to be on, so when you’re out there, you have to work hard at it.”
Campbell became famous for his shot-blocking during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks. The Bruins held the Canucks to only two power play goals in the seven-game series and it was a huge factor in deciding the outcome.
“I think everyone’s seen that one block shot he had in the playoffs, a few years ago, when (Boston) won it, and I think that kind of sums him up,” Calvert said of Campbell. “He’s a smart PK-er, he’s willing to sacrifice his body and I think that’s something we needed a little more of and it’s going to be a huge asset for our team.”
And though every team has its own penalty-killing style or specific systems, the objective is always the same.
“Some teams have those star players that really can make you pay on one shot – obviously Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, those type of guys," Campbell said. "So the game plan changes from night to night, but the philosophy stays the same.”
When it comes to successful penalty killing, there are a few fundamentals including out-working the power play, communicating often and well, winning face-offs, competing hard for loose pucks and always keeping an active stick.
“Really, when you get down to it, you can have as many Xs and Os and game plans as you want on a penalty kill, but really it comes down to sacrifice, determination,” Campbell said. “I mean, you’re down a player and you’re on the ice against arguably the best players on the other team and most skilled players, so a lot of times you have to respect their skill, but you can outwork the power play and be more determined for loose pucks and be committed to blocking shots, because that goes a long way.”
Campbell said playing on the penalty kill unit has been a big part of his game since his time playing in the juniors, and feels comfortable in that role.
He’s enthusiastic about playing alongside Calvert and continuing to contribute and improve the penalty-killing effort for the Jackets this season.
“It’s something that I’ve done my entire career,” Campbell said. “It’s something that I’ve made a living off of, is killing penalties and I pride myself on killing penalties.
"It’s a very important part of the game, and it’s not an easy job. It takes a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice and commitment, but it goes a long way throughout the team.”