The Columbus Blue Jackets special teams units appear to be stuck in some kind of alternate universe. A penalty kill that's been notoriously stingy over the first few years under Ken Hitchcock is giving up goals. And a power play that was at the bottom of the league a year ago is lighting up the NHL in 2009-10.
"We're upping our level of competitiveness," says Raffi Torres, the CBJ's current special teams poster boy, with all of his points (4-1-5) coming on the power play. "Our problem last year was that we'd almost sit back and hope that it would happen.
"If anything, you almost have to work harder out there. You have that man advantage and the harder you work, the easier it gets."
Torres suggests that penalty killers are at their most vulnerable nearing the end of an opponents' power play and the more pucks you can get on the net, the more successful the units can be. That approach has been working for the Jackets. They have scored at least one power-play goal in eight of the first 11 games and already have two, multi-goal games after posting just six all of last season.
Overall, Columbus has 10 power-play goals in 44 opportunities (22.7 per cent), good enough for 12th in the NHL. But head coach Ken Hitchcock doesn't care where his team ranks in the category. What matters to the boss is when those goals come.
"To me, mid table, front, back is not important," said Hitchcock.
"Timing is everything on the power play. What's helped us this year is the timing of all of our goals.
"That's what kept us in games.”
After boasting one of the best power play units in the preseason, the Jackets have maintained that momentum, particularly with those timely goals that Hitchcock refers to.
Torres' first of the season back on Oct. 5 pretty much finished off the Vancouver Canucks on the road, while Anton Stralman's first goal of his Columbus career came on the power play against the Calgary Flames at Nationwide Arena on Oct. 13, an effort that tied the game 1-1 before Kristian Huselius got the eventual winner. Torres struck again with the L.A. Kings in town on Oct. 17, his power play marker that night counting as the game-winning goal in a 4-1 victory. The unit looked great in Calgary on Oct. 20 with the Jackets down 3-1. They buried a five-on-three chance and looked sharp equalizing on the subsequent five-on-four to tie the game.
If the Jackets can continue to be consistent with the man advantage, it could ease the burden when points become harder to secure as the season goes on.
"In the new NHL, special teams is such a big deal and so far it's been good," says captain Rick Nash. "We work on it every day.
"We've got skill players on there and everyone seems to be on the same page."
The only real concern with the Jackets' power play is getting the first unit to match the second's production. Torres' four PP goals have him tied for third in the NHL, while second-year man Jake Voracek has scored two of his four goals with Columbus up a man. Hitchcock sees the second unit's confidence growing. He wants the same from the top dogs.
"The second one is more competitive than the first," says Hitchcock.
Nash says that Stralman has been a key pickup for the club, especially on the power play. Right-handed shots on the blue-line are tough to come by and Columbus appears to have got a good one in Stralman.
The 23-year-old from Tibro, Sweden is no stranger to special teams play. He would get some occasional power-play time with the Toronto Maple Leafs the past couple seasons and last year, in 36 games with the Leafs' AHL affiliate Marlies, six of his seven goals came on the man advantage.
"It's a great opportunity," Stralman says of the chance to take on that role in Columbus. "I love playing on the power play. It's a lot of fun and it's a big part of the game."
Stralman has been a relatively effective puck mover, his responsibilities consisting of getting the puck out of Columbus end and setting up after crossing the opponents' blue-line.
"We've scored some goals," he says. "That's what it's all about.
"We have to move the puck a bit quicker, get some more shots and really take the shot when you have it. That's how you create chances."