CALGARY, AB -- The last time the National Hockey League emerged from a lockout, referees wasted no time digging whistles out of their pockets, calling infractions at a fast and furious rate.
And while little has been verbalized in the way of a similar crackdown this season, Calgary Flames players and coaches alike are preparing for what could be a special teams start to the season.
“There’s always a bunch of penalties for some reason,” Alex Tanguay said. “The referees were just handed their rulebook and they seem to apply it a little bit better the start of the year.”
When play resumed in 2005, power plays skyrocketed to 11.7 opportunities a game. Last season, referees dolled out 3913 power plays, an average of just 6.36 every 60 minutes, nearing the lowest figure since 1978-79, when the NHL averaged 6.77 power plays per game in a 680 game, 17-team schedule.
The Flames haven’t seen that surge just yet. Averaging just three power play opportunities per game through the first two games of the season, the parade to the penalty box hasn’t yet begun for the opposition.
Mike Cammalleri, who earned 26 minutes in penalties last year split between the Flames and Montreal Canadiens, expects an increase in called infractions but nothing like the league saw coming out of the last lockout.
“I don’t know if it’ll be quite the same as coming out of the last lockout,” he said. “There was definitely a mandate to tighten things up and create more power plays, more penalty killing. Those are important all the time. I believe they could be more this year.”
With a projected increase in man-advantages coming, special teams will be key for the Flames to get their season rolling in the right direction.
Calgary’s already started pushing in that direction, clicking at a 50 per cent rate with the man advantage.
“Certainly for us, special units are going to be huge,” Tanguay said. “The power play is the part of the game that’s going to be huge at the start of the season.”
Though the power play gets the glory, the penalty kill will be equally as important to weather the wave of oncoming whistles.
Cory Sarich, who spent almost a minute a game shorthanded last season,
“You see it both ways,” Sarich said. “For the most part in this league, power plays are pretty even throughout a game so your penalty kills, you end up having to kill as much as you’re on the power play. Everything has to be ready to go. Special teams are such a crucial part. Five-on-five, obviously important, but special teams now in our game has become first and foremost.”
Which is why head coach Bob Hartley’s Flames have dedicated much of their training camp time to both the power play and penalty killing units.
According to Hartley, winning the special teams battle will more often than not be difference between a victory and a loss.
“Special teams, lots of time, they generate confidence and generate momentum in games,” Hartley said. “When you have a good power play, it seems your five-on-five play is better, your positional play is better because on power play, they are your most skilled guys. If your most skilled guys, they feel good about their game, suddenly it gets contagious.
“If you want to frustrate an opponent’s team, you frustrate their best players off the power play and suddenly lots of times the team is going to get worse five-on-five, they’re going to get frustrated and usually you beat those teams.”
Which will make special teams all the more significant when whistles are shrieking to start the season.