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Story So Far: Special Teams

by Kristyn Repke / Columbus Blue Jackets

Special teams. They're often the difference between earning points in the standings or falling out of playoff contention. It's no secret that the best teams in the NHL are consistently those who take advantage of the extra man on the ice or specialize in shutting down the oppositions' best offensive players on the power play. Having more power play time means more puck possession, which in turn means more chances to score.

The start of the season saw a supercharged top power play unit consisting of Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski on the points, with Marian Gaborik, Artem Anisimov and Cam Atkinson making up the forward group. In their first five games, they scored a power play goal in four of them--and Atkinson was on the ice for every single one. He only scored one of the four goals in that span, but was critical in setting up the plays to make those goals possible. Despite the excellent power play, which had a 25 percent success rate, the Blue Jackets posted a 2-3-0 record in their first five games of the season.

The hot streak for the power play continued into Game 6, a road game against the Montreal Canadiens in which the team scored two power play goals on six opportunities. Boone Jenner, who had seen just 12 seconds of power play time previously, scored both of the goals on the man advantage. Though the Blue Jackets lost the game, coach Todd Richards was quick to credit the power play unit for taking advantage of their opportunities.

Though they recorded four power play goals during that second five-game span, the penalty kill unit made up primarily of Johnson, Fedor Tyutin, Dalton Prout and Mark Letestu allowed five goals on just 18 chances, a penalty kill percentage of 72 that saw the Blue Jackets fall to the bottom of the league.

The shorthanded woes continued as the Blue Jackets lost five games in a row, including three losses to two of the top teams in the NHL: the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks. The opposition lit the lamp four times in 19 chances as the Blue Jackets recorded their most undiciplined stretch of the season. The power play faltered as well, scoring just one power play goal on 13 chances. Richards shuffled the units around, hoping to rejuvenate the success the special teams units saw in the first ten games.

Games 17-19 saw 10 power play opportunities pass by, which contributed to a 0-0-3 record until the Blue Jackets turned things around against the Ottawa Senators in game 20. They scored three power play goals on five opportunities, good for a 60 percent conversion rate. Then, in the stretch from games 22-38, the penalty kill units were extremely successful and were top-5 in the NHL in penalty killing during that span with an 87 percent kill rate. As they found success, the power play amassed just eight goals in 17 games on 54 opportunities--a 14.8 success rate. However, the system was working as the Blue Jackets posted a 10-6-1 record.

As of late, Nathan Horton's return has somewhat revived the power play. Until his return, the Blue Jackets had just one goal over the span of 26 power play chances. In his first game back, Horton was on the ice for the two Blue Jackets' power play goals that led them to victory over the Phoenix Coyotes.

One area where the Blue Jackets have consistently been able to shine is in 5-on-3 situations. They have four goals on nine two-man advantage opportunities, a conversion rate that is bested by just eight teams.

Another area to look at in terms of special teams would be the power play and penalty kills broken down by period, compared to the Blue Jackets' goals-for and goals against totals by period. The Blue Jackets have had the second most power plays during the second period (61) but have just 33 second period goals, which is 25th in the NHL. They have also been shorthanded 62 times during the second period, and have alowed 43 goals for a -10 second period goal differential. The majority of the goals for on the opposition's power play units have either tied the game in that time or given them the lead--crucial to the Blue Jackets' win-loss record.

Period-by-Period breakdown:

P1 pp p2 pp p3 pp p1 pk p2 pk p3 pk
40 (27th) 61 (T-2) 38 (t-22) 42 (5th) 62 (26th) 46 (23rd)
p1 GF p2 Gf p3 gf p1 ga p2 ga p3 ga
36 (T-11) 33 (t-25) 44 (t-7) 28 (t-22) 43 (t-13) 51 (t-3)


Special teams performance will be a key factor in the Blue Jackets quest to secure a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Just over halfway through the season, they're at the middle of the pack in power play percentage with a 17.1 conversion rate (31 power play goals on 150 opportunities). Penalty killing units have improved since the start of the season, they've given up multiple power play goals in six games and can improve upon their 79.3 kill percentage.

Special teams time is not just handed out, however--it has to be earned--something Todd Richards has often said throughout the season. A prime example of this was Ryan Murray, who rarely made an appearance in either situation but now averages about two minutes of special teams time per game. Veteran players like Johnson, Wisniewski, Tyutin and Dubinsky have established themselves as special teams specialists in their NHL careers and are valuable assets to the Blue Jackets' PP and PK units, usually regardless of their success rates game in and game out.

There are a few additional options the staff has going forward regarding special teams. Tyutin has been solid night in and night out, and Johnson has picked up his play. With the chemistry they've formed over the past year, partnering together on the penalty kill seems like a no-brainer. They are both used to playing against opponents' top offensemen, a similar role they experience when shorthanded. Horton and Dubinsky will undoubtedly make up a unit, as the two have combined for excellent numbers since Horton's debut. Another option to consider is putting Atkinson back as a regular on the top power play unit--something that has not been utilized since the first half of the season due to Atkinson's offensive plateau. No matter what the decision, Richards will weigh all his options and give several players looks in different places as skaters come in and out of the lineup and injured reserve.

Notable special teams stats, compiled into one handy chart:

 category statistic NHL rank
PP Goals for 24 T-19
total pp opportunities 140 T-22
pp percentage 17.1% 20
SH goals against 3 t-13
pp goals allowed 31 T-23
total times shorthanded 150 T-21
PK Percentage 79.3% 25
SH goals for 4 t-6
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