Killing penalties is a skill that all 30 National Hockey League coaches value. At the moment, head coach Ken Hitchcock just happens to have a team that does it better than the other 29.
Eighteen games into the 2007-08 season, the Columbus Blue Jackets sit atop the league in one of the most important statistical categories in the sport. Columbus has killed an astonishing 91.1 per cent of its opponents' power plays and the master tactician behind the bench attributes it to one single quality.
"Pride," Hitchcock says when explaining why the Blue Jackets have been so successful on the PK. "It's a very proud group. We don't like to get scored on.
"If you're a proud group killing penalties and willing to look in the mirror, you'll have success. If you hide from the fact that it might have been your mistake that cost you, you never have success."
That pride has been on display since the puck dropped on opening night. Despite a few blips on the road of late in which they allowed two goals each night in back-to-back games against Central Division rivals Detroit and Nashville, the Jackets' penalty-killing unit has still been sharp away from home, allowing seven goals in 51 times shorthanded for a solid 86.3 per cent success rate. But at Nationwide Arena, Columbus has been near perfect in protecting their fortress – just one power-play goal scored in the first 39 times shorthanded (97.4 per cent).
"The guys out there have been playing on the same page whether we're all forcing or we stay back in our box," says captain Adam Foote, who credits assistant coach Gord Murphy for preparing the penalty killers so well. "As of late, we could be better. You have to keep trying and get better and try to stay focused."
Goaltenders are often referred to as the most important penalty killers on the ice and while both Pascal Leclaire and Fredrik Norrena have played a huge role in corralling the opposition's power play units, they've received plenty of help.
"It's our work ethic," Leclaire says of his teammates. "The guys in front of me do an amazing job position wise. We don't get caught out of position very often when killing penalties. Guys are very solid and very aware.
"They block a lot of shots. They're not scared of blocking shots."
Hitchcock says the meetings his penalty killers have when discussing their responsibilities are "raw and intense." There is passion in both the preparation and execution. And when the unit is doing its job, the coach believes it's invigorating for the entire team.
"The saying is power plays can win you games but poor penalty killing can lose you games," says Hitchcock. "I think it's a real accurate statement. If you have good penalty killing, you're always going to be in the game, you're always going to be able to come back in games and you’re always going to be able to win close games."
Penalty killing stats are one of the more telling in hockey. Last season, three of the four playoff semi-finalists ranked among the top 10 in league in that category during the regular season. Stanley Cup winner Anaheim finished fifth at 85.1 per cent; the Red Wings were seventh at 84.6 percent; and Ottawa ranked ninth overall at 84.5 per cent. Columbus has made a quantum leap since 2006-07, when they finished 21st in the NHL at 81.2 per cent, with a league-high 453 times shorthanded.
The Jackets started the season a perfect 17-for-17 in the first three games and have continually come up with timely kills that have had a big impact on the outcome of games.
In their recent 4-2 home win over Chicago, that timing was evident. With Columbus leading 3-1 in third period, the Blackhawks went on the power play but didn’t get a sniff with the man advantage. The Jackets killed the penalty and just moments after, Jason Chimera burst down the ice and roofed a slap shot to build a three-goal lead and put the game out of reach.
"You can create a lot of momentum out of your penalty killing," says Leclaire. "Guys get hyped up for it. If you kill a few in a row or a five-on-three, it's usually a big lift."
Part of the success the Jackets have enjoyed this year comes from their ability to adapt to different opposition and different situations. Foote, who has played on teams with a variety of different PK styles, says that the penalty killers are developing a good sense of when to play the passive box and when to increase the aggression. In addition, despite being down a man, the captain knows the unit can also be a threat going the other way.
"We're trying to get that way, for sure," says Foote, who scored a shorthanded goal in the second game of the season. "We've had some good opportunities. I think Nash is a good penalty killer that can also scare a defenseman if he bobbles it. If we play strong in our end, we will create those chances.
"It's just like five-on-five, if you take pride in your own end and work hard at it, you're going to have success.”
Be it Manny Malholtra, Jan Hejda, Chimera, Nash or any of the other usual suspects on the penalty kill, that aspect of the game has been an integral part of Columbus's best ever start to an NHL season.
"If you trust that your penalty killing can do the job, and then you can play more aggressive, you can take more risks on a physical nature. But, if you don't trust your penalty killing and you don't trust the goaltending in there, you play really nervous and really uptight in your own end," says Hitchcock.
"When you're not sure you can kill a penalty, I think it has a domino effect right throughout your lineup."
That hasn't been a worry for the top-ranked Blue Jackets unit.