As players dropped one-by-one over the last few months -- from Justin Williams to Chad LaRose to Rod Brind’Amour -- and others were traded like Craig Adams, coach Peter Laviolette and his staff appeared stuck.
With those four guys gone, who would now kill penalties for the Carolina Hurricanes during the stretch run, a crucial time for special teams as the playoff race has swung into slap-shot mode?
It appeared to be a no-win situation for a team already last in the NHL on the penalty kill.
But Laviolette looked around the locker room and came up with an unlikely candidate – All-Star MVP Eric Staal.
While Staal killed penalties early in his career (he actually has six shorthanded goals to his credit), Laviolette was hesitant to use his young center on the penalty kill early in the season, instead opting to save his minutes for more offensive situations.
But with few options remaining, Laviolette turned to his star to save the day.
Staal has delivered some clutch penalty-killing performances over the last three weeks, rallying a seemingly dysfunctional group into a team strength.
Staal played close to five of his 25 minutes in Thursday night’s 3-2 win over the Minnesota Wild, killing off all six shorthanded chances. In fact, the Canes haven’t given up a power-play goal in five games, going 14-for-14 with a 4-1 record during that stretch.
Those numbers are even more impressive when you factor in the loss of one of the best face-off men in the business in Brind’Amour, often meaning more offensive zone time for opposing power-play units.
“Eric has been great,” Laviolette said. “The biggest thing about penalty killing is execution and that’s what I’ve noticed most about him. Since the injuries he’s stepped in and executed well.”
Staal backed up Brind’Amour at the tail end of killing 5-on-3s, but that was his main PK role until the Carolina captain tore his knee up against Pittsburgh on Feb. 14.
“And we had LaRose and Williams, so we tried to spread it out and moved the minutes around to keep guys like Staal fresher,” Laviolette said. “But we’re all hands on deck right now, so whatever it takes.”
Staal has embraced his added role and the responsibility that comes with it, logging more than 24 minutes of ice time in seven of the team’s last 11 games.
“Yeah, I don’t mind it,” Staal said when asked about killing penalties. “Anything I can do to help. I thought our PK was phenomenal against the Wild. Special teams win you games at this time of the year.
“I feel good,” Staal added about his increased minutes. “You have to be smart about your preparation, how much you sleep, eat and get fluids to make sure you’re ready to play when the puck drops. How hard we practice helps me and our team be ready to play.”
Obviously, killing penalties isn’t as glorious as scoring a game-winning goal, or even winning a fight. Most PK players around the NHL are third- or fourth-line guys who are considered “muckers.” Staal is far from that, but his long reach and great skating ability for his size make him extremely effective killing off penalties.
Staal has been joined by linemate Erik Cole on the first PK unit for Carolina. Even power-play expert Matt Cullen was seen killing off a late penalty against Minnesota after Cole and Scott Walker were handed penalties that ended their services for the night.
“We didn’t have any bodies left,” joked Cullen. “Anytime your penalty kill is going well that means you’ve got good goaltending because regardless of what you do the other team is going to get shots. Cam Ward has been great for a while now. His game has helped our overall game. And it really shows on the penalty kill.”
Yes, Ward has been sensational of late, but he had to make just seven saves on Minnesota’s six power plays – a ratio the coaching staff will take any day of the week.
“Going on the PK with less than five minutes left in a one-goal game is where you need guys to step up,” Ward said. “I saw Glen Wesley flying all over the place trying to do the best he can to get his body in front of shots. We know we have good enough players on the PK, it’s just a matter of doing the job and limiting chances.”
“It was gut-check time and we came up with some big kills,” added Trevor Letowski. “It has been kind of a weakness for us all year, it’s not from a lack of effort, sometimes it’s just bad luck and we’ve been kind of fighting it, but we’re really picked it up the last few games.”
The PK turnaround couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the Southeast Division leaders.
“Our execution is better and it’s winning us hockey games,” Laviolette said. “You see it all year long, but especially now, it makes a difference in wins and losses.”