-- Last season, the Coyotes managed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs despite finishing an unsightly No. 26 in the NHL in penalty killing -- second-worst among all postseason qualifiers. Taking far too many infractions, Phoenix watched player after player trudge to the box while allowing a goal 21.6 percent of the time.
Something had to change. Actually, a lot
of things had to change.
But when the Coyotes allowed three goals on the first four San Jose power plays on Opening Night, it appeared exactly nothing had changed. The new faces were even less successful than their hit-and-miss predecessors.
But with Mike Smith
and his deft stick in goal, Boyd Gordon
handling opponents in the faceoff circle and players like David Schlemko
, Rostislav Klesla
, Derek Morris
, Lauri Korpikoski
and Martin Hanzal
selling out to block shots and clear the zone, the Coyotes righted the ship quickly and have allowed just three power-play goals in their past 14-plus games, and have turned a decided shortcoming into a pillar of strength.
In the past 14 games -- plus the final 30 minutes of the San Jose game -- the Coyotes have killed 46 of 49 penalties (93.8 percent), including 18 straight as they begin a four-game Eastern Conference road swing Tuesday in Toronto against the Maple Leafs. That's just three goals in more than 90 minutes of penalty-killing duty.
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"We have a good chemistry out there right now, from the goal out," said Klesla, who struggled after coming to Phoenix during the 2010-11 season but has found a comfort zone this season. "We feel comfortable on the ice, and when you find a formula that works, it's easier to stick with what’s working."
The Coyotes haven't allowed a power-play goal on the road since the opener, and the 20-straight stops have a lot to do with a 4-0-1 record in those five road games.
The formula has several key components:
*Stay out of the box. The Coyotes have taken an NHL-low 53 penalties in 15 games (3.53 a game). Fewer penalty-killing shifts mean more energy to expend each time it is needed.
"We're taking only two or three penalties here lately, and that's a big part of it -- not taxing your specialists," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett
said. "We took too many penalties last year and it was a domino effect. You are just playing with fire."
*Win face-offs. Newcomer Gordon, in addition to tying a career-high with 3 goals in the first 15 games, ranks fourth in shorthanded face-off percentage (59.3), and is even better on the road (61.9). That leads to possession, clearing opportunities and the chance to get fresh skaters on the ice.
"Boyd is one of the best in the business and he wins all the big draws," Klesla said.
*An active goaltender. While goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov
was terrific the last two seasons, he stayed tethered to the net and left it to his penalty killers to fend for themselves. But Smith is active and aggressive, unafraid to corral dump-ins and send the puck back down the ice to suck 10-15 seconds out of a power play.
"You can tell teams are trying to carry the puck into the zone instead of using the forecheck because Mike is able to disarm the dumps and clear himself in a lot of instances," Phoenix goalie coach Sean Burke
said. "It's having an extra body on the (penalty kill) and it allows the other guys to be more aggressive. It's been a good combination."
Klesla agreed: "If you can get two (or) three clears in a penalty, you're not only in the zone less, but you are conserving energy, and when the rush comes back you have a good chance of making a play. So we're taking fewer penalties and killing less inside of each penalty."
Of course, it doesn't always work that way.
Thursday against Montreal, Smith had to make eight saves -- five of them highlight quality -- during one two-minute sequence. But Smith made the stops and the streak continued.
"Last year we let in a lot of goals (64) in during the kill," said Korpikoski, who is adept at turning blocked shots into shorthanded scoring chances and has three teammates in Klesla (27), Gordon (26) and Schlemko (25) who are good at getting in front of the puck. "Sometimes they go in and there is nothing you can do about it; it's not about the system or anything.
"But we're a good five-man unit out there right now. We're winning draws, Smitty is playing the puck and we're able to be very aggressive against the power play. We've found an attack that is working."