As the Carolina Hurricanes ride a wave of momentum into the 2009 NHL playoffs one important statistic may not stick out to the casual observer. The Canes head into the final five games of the regular season not only on a season-best six-game winning streak but ranked first in the league with the fewest penalty minutes.
Sure, averaging less than 10 penalty minutes per game is partly due to a lineup that doesn’t have a propensity to drop the gloves, but it also serves notice of how disciplined the Canes have become – at both ends of the ice -- since Paul Maurice implemented his system in early December.
In the first 21 games of the season, Carolina had to kill off five or more penalties in a game 11 different times. Over the last 56 games, that number is just 12.
When Tim Gleason
took a costly slashing penalty late in a 5-3 loss at Atlanta on Feb. 28, it was almost an aberration, certainly not the norm from a group that has prided itself on playing physical, yet within the rules during a recent surge toward the postseason.
“We don’t take a lot of foolish stick minors any more,” said Maurice, who saw his team called for just two minors the other night in a 2-1 victory at New Jersey. “I think this team skates well enough that it doesn’t get behind the play too many times. We’ve got our forwards working hard enough to the point where they are in front of the puck. Almost all stick penalties are taken from behind, being out of position.”
“We always stress discipline,” added captain Rod Brind’Amour, a former Selke Trophy winner as the league’s best defensive forward. “You are going to take penalties, they are going to happen, but you don’t want to take the unnecessary ones. The ones that are undisciplined, unnecessary, those are the ones that always seem to come back and haunt teams. We’re not the kind of team that’s going to go out there and run people over. We try to play between the whistles, so maybe that’s why our penalties are down.”
Most of the players believe a lack of minors is due to two factors – the speed in which most of the team skates and self control – something that defenseman Joe Corvo has utilized this season, being called for just eight minors in 77 games played.Corvo is not alone in his lack of penalty minutes on defense. Anton Babchuk also has been called for just eight minors this season in 67 games.
“When I use my stick I try to keep it down by the guy’s pants,” Corvo said. “I’m pushing, not really cross-checking. You just need to get a guy off-balanced for a second and you can get your stick on his or on the puck, you don’t need to knock him over with the cross-check.
“And we’ve got one guy (on defense) who is willing to fight in Gleason, so there is not a sense to get even right away when maybe somebody takes liberties on you.”
“Our guys on defense are smart about it,” added Brind’Amour. “I think it’s a mindset going on that we’re not going to slash and hack and do something that may cost us a game. It’s our whole team identity. It’s the way we think.”
With just 281 power-play attempts allowed, the Canes are headed for the lowest mark in that category since the 1999-2000 season. And fewer penalties has allowed Maurice to use a player such as Eric Staal on the penalty kill and not abuse his minutes.
“It makes a difference in the whole game because if you’re killing penalties half the night that means your players are getting worn down and you put yourself in a hole,” said general manager Jim Rutherford. “So, it’s really more about being able to maintain a flow of the game and having your players fresh and sharp for the full 60 minutes.”
Staal and others say the Canes have also toned down critical comments from the bench aimed at questionable calls.
“We’ve been doing a pretty good job staying off the referees and not getting too fired up,” Staal said.
“We just seem more worried about the game and not things we can’t control,” added Brind’Amour.
The Canes believe a learned habit of remaining disciplined, turning the other cheek at times or just being crafty in front of Cam Ward will help steal a game or two come playoff time, which could mean the difference in advancing to the next round or heading to the golf course for the summer.
“It’s tough to get penalties called against you when you’re moving your legs and moving your feet,” Staal said. “When we’re on our skating game it’s tough to call penalties against us.”