It is physically and mentally draining. It can hurt. Rarely does glory come from it.
Penalty killing is a dirty job, but, yes, someone has to do it and do it well if you are going to be a playoff team. In the balanced NHL where you can go from fifth to 14th in the conference with a bad week or two, an extra power-play goal against every other game can end your season earlier than expected.
“The margin of error is so small,” Lightning center Paul Szczechura said. “It’s the little things that count.”
A bounce here, a post there. Positioning, speed, trust and luck all come into play.
There might not be major differences in the way the Lightning were playing against the man advantage a month ago when they were near the bottom of the league, but they are finding ways to get the job done of late to move into the middle of the pack and in the top 10 at home.
“The guys are starting to wrap their hands around what we’re trying to accomplish as a team,” Lightning assistant coach Wes Walz said. “We have had a little better puck luck the last 10-12 games, but they are starting to understand the very subtle adjustments you have to make while you’re on the ice. You can’t have a coach out there holding your hand. They are making adjustments and that makes a big difference as to why you get the bounces you do.”
Some teams are a little more aggressive and in players’ faces. Some look to close off passing and shooting lanes. The most important job for the killers, make a play when it is there and get fresh players on the ice.
“When a guy has a chance to clear the puck and he doesn’t, that’s huge,” Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said. “You look at the best penalty killers and the best teams over the years -- when they get a chance to clear it, it’s done.”
The Lightning struggled with that through parts of the first two months. The Lightning killed off two early third-period penalties against Colorado with a 1-0 lead earlier this month in Denver. But they spent so much time in their zone, while failing several times to clear the puck , they appeared tired and on their heels the rest of the game. The Avalanche tied it before winning in a shootout.
“The cumulative effect of spending time in your zone plays a role as the game goes on,” Walz said. “It can also play a role from game to game.”
The Lightning have improved with solid work from veterans such as defenseman Mattias Ohlund and forwards Jeff Halpern, Stephane Veilleux and Ryan Malone. Two 19-year olds (James Wright and Steven Stamkos) have played roles at forward on the kill along with rookies Blair Jones and Szczechura. Victor Hedman, 19, also gets a lot of first calls on defense.
Walz, one the league’s best penalty killers when he played with Minnesota, said the most important attribute for a successful penalty killer is speed.
“They have five and we have four,” Walz said. “You have to be a little bit smarter, use your angles, have your stick in the right position, but nothing trumps speed. When loose pucks become available, we try to put the guys in the right positions to get the clear.”
Stamkos has as much speed as any player in the NHL and he has gotten much more time on the penalty kill this season.
“You want to be out there in all situations and be a player that can be counted on offensively and defensively,” Stamkos said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Szczechura said he has been a penalty killer at every level.
“I take pride in it,” Szczechura said. “It’s a big part of the game. You can’t just run around out there, you have to play smart and be in the right spots. You’re playing against the best players on every team. You can’t get beat, but you have to trust your teammates and make sure you are all on the same page.”
Sometimes, you just have to give up your body and get in front of a shot between 90-100 miles per hour. Halpern leads the Lightning forwards with 25 blocks on the season. Jones has nine in nine games since being recalled from Norfolk.
Jones got in front of an Ilya Kovalchuk shot against Atlanta in a 4-3 win Saturday.
“That’s something that needs to be done,” Jones said. “It’s not something the fans notice as much, but some of those shots could be goals. It only stings for a second.”
With 1:27 left in the game and holding a 2-1 lead over Boston Monday, Tocchet sent out Hedman, Ohlund, Jones and Szczechura to kill a penalty as Boston pulled goalie Tim Thomas to create a 6-on-4. With the faceoff at the right dot, he wanted two right-hand shots out there at forward and Jones took two key draws as the Lightning held on for the victory. He did not lose the first cleanly, allowing his team to be positioned well, and won the second against Marc Savard.
“It’s a pretty good feeling that the coaches have enough confidence in you to put you out there in those kinds of situations against a talented team like the Bruins,” Jones said.
“[Walz] and [assistant] Adam Oates are two of the best in the business on faceoffs,” Tocchet said. “They think Jones is going to be a heck of a face-off guy. We gave him a shot and he came through for us.”
Right now, the Bolts are making a few less mistakes and making a few more plays down a man. They are focused on continuing that pattern.
“We’re getting the job done,” Szczechura said. “I think we can really build off it and move forward.”