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Special special teams

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks
It doesn’t sell tickets and it doesn’t generate many headlines, but the Vancouver Canucks’ penalty killing might very well be the most-efficient part of the hockey club’s game right now. And it’s a huge part of the Canucks run of seven straight victories.

With three more against the Boston Bruins on December 14th, the Canucks pushed their current run of successful penalty kills to 20 on the seven game win streak. But even more impressive than that is the fact the Canucks are giving up almost no shots while short-handed.

There is an old adage in hockey that a team’s goalie has to be its best penalty killer, but against the Bruins and the night before against the Edmonton Oilers, the Canucks held both opponents to just one shot on the power play. So the Canucks are making life considerably easier on the netminders by not allowing other teams to set up and establish possession on their power plays. Stop and think about this for a moment: in the past four games, the Canucks have given up just five shots while short-handed and they allowed only seven power play shots on their recent five game homestand.

Overall, the Canucks penalty kill is now up 90.2% for the season and has been perfect in 11 of the past 12 outings. In 18 home games this season, the Canucks have allowed just four opposition power play goals – and two of those came in the same game against Montreal on October 12th.

Ryan Kesler is a big part of the penalty kill and his play has gone to another level during the seven game win streak. Kesler is contributing in all areas, but his defensive play right now is looking a lot like it did during his Selke Trophy winning season in 2010-11. During the win streak, Kesler has been on the ice for just one goal against. It was the 2-2 goal in Carolina which means the Canucks have not been scored on with Kesler on the ice in their past six games.

His defensive work in conjunction with the team’s overall play – and particulary on the penalty kill – is one of the main reasons the Canucks are giving up next to nothing to their opponents best players lately. During the win streak, look at the guys who have scored against the Canucks: Jordan Staal, Nathan Gerbe, Colin Wilson, Antoine Vermette, David Moss, Jamie McGinn and Reilly Smith had both Boston goals. All are solid NHL’ers, but none are superstars. The Canucks have done a remarkable job lately of keeping the other team’s best players in check.

Another reason for the Canucks penalty killing success has been the play of Mike Santorelli. As if Canucks fans needed another reason to like his contributions, try this one: Santorelli is always available for the PK because he’s never in the penalty box himself. He has gone 25 games without a penalty and hasn’t been sent off by the officials since a puck over the glass delay of game penalty in Columbus on October 20th – in the 10th game of the season. The Canucks have been short-handed 79 times since then and Santorelli, who is averaging 1:38 of short-handed ice time per game this season, hasn’t been responsible for any of those penalties. It’s proof that a guy can be hard on the puck and relentless on the forecheck every shift without hooking or holding or getting a stick up on an opponent. Oh, and by the way, Santorelli has never seen the inside of the penalty box at Rogers Arena – all three of his minor penalties this season have come on the road.

In case you’re wondering, Chris Tanev leads the Canucks in average short-handed ice time per game (2:31) followed by Dan Hamhuis (2:25). Among the forwards, it’s Kesler (1:59), Brad Richardson (1:53) and Chris Higgins (1:51).

And while the Canucks penalty killing has been terrific all season, the team’s power play has sprung to life now, too. And that’s another reason for the seven game win streak. In so many closely-contested games in today’s NHL, winning the special teams battle goes a long way to winning hockey games.

And the Canucks power play is 6/20 (30%) on the win streak. The team managed six power play goals in its first 20 games of the season and has now struck six times in its last 20 opportunities. That included a 2 for 4 performance on December 13th against Edmonton – the Canucks first multi-power play goal outing of the season.

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