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Forward thinking helped Devils set PK record

by Dave Lozo

Penalty-killing units are usually filled with the muckers and grinders of an NHL roster, players who are defensive in nature and enthusiastic about sliding in front of slap shots and passes alike in order to keep the opposition off the scoreboard.

The New Jersey Devils, who set a modern-day record for penalty-killing efficiency this season, have taken a different approach toward playing shorthanded.

It's not out of the ordinary to see a team use its best offensive forwards to kill penalties -- Anze Kopitar of the Kings, Eric Staal of the Hurricanes, Claude Giroux of the Flyers, Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks, to name a few -- but the Devils are the only team whose top-four scorers are in the team's top five in shorthanded ice time among forwards.

Dainius Zubrus is the team leader among forwards (2:00 average per game), but he's followed by Zach Parise (1:57), Adam Henrique (1:47), Patrik Elias (1:46) and Ilya Kovalchuk (1:09). The unique situation is a big reason why the Devils killed 89.6 percent of the penalties against this season, breaking the mark of 89.3 set by the Dallas Stars during the 1999-2000 season.

"Those guys are dangerous," said forward Travis Zajac, a staple on the penalty-killing unit who  missed all but 15 games this season due to an Achilles' injury. "They're good at anticipating plays and jumping on guys and knowing when to jump and when to back off. When we get the puck, we're making plays. We're not just throwing it down the ice.

"The thing is, we've got a lot of confidence on the PK, which is big."

The record-setting season wouldn't have been possible with the prodding of assistant coach Dave Barr.

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When Peter DeBoer was hired as Devils coach in July, he took over a team that missed the postseason for the first time in 15 years and was faced with many questions about managing Martin Brodeur's playing time and finding a way for star left wings Kovalchuk and Parise to co-exist.

DeBoer wasn't thinking about the personnel on his penalty-killing units; that's what Barr was doing.

The 51-year-old Barr was hired by the Devils about three weeks after DeBoer took the reins, and it wasn't long before the assistant was pushing an idea on the bench boss: Let's use our best offensive forwards to kill penalties.

DeBoer admitted it took him a while to get on board with the idea.

"I don’t think I had that plan when I took the job," DeBoer said. "I think I recognized pretty early, those guys had hockey sense and some characteristics that would make them very good penalty killers. Dave Barr was pushing right from Day 1 to get those guys involved. It's worked. It's a great accomplishment. Penalty killing is about grit and structure and heart and battle level, and I think that's an important characteristic of our team."

Killing penalties was nothing new for Elias, and Parise had killed penalties at times in the past, but not to the extent he has this year. Kovalchuk was perhaps the biggest question. Outside of a stint in 2003-04 when he averaged a minute of PK time per game with the Atlanta Thrashers, Kovalchuk was about as inexperienced as it gets.

The first-year coach said Kovalchuk's reputation as an offense-first, defense-second player isn't what made him hesitant about using him there -- it was the idea of putting Kovalchuk and all his best players in harm's way.

"With all of them, I was a little bit wary just because you're asking guys in those situations to block shots, to do a lot of things -- sacrifice their body -- that go over and above some 5-on-5 play or power-play play," DeBoer said. "You're putting yourself at a much higher risk when you're killing penalties. That was something that I had to get past. They love it."

Kovalchuk said when the coaching staff came to him with the idea of killing penalties, he jumped at the idea.

"I was definitely excited, because sometimes when you get two, three penalties in a row and you're not playing the PK, you can get out of the game a little bit," Kovalchuk said. "Now you're always in the moment, and it's nice to be part of it, too."

The loss of Zajac was one of the factors in Parise seeing additional shorthanded ice time. The Devils' captain embraced the role and echoed the sentiments of Kovalchuk.

"If you get into penalty trouble, which happens, all of a sudden I'll be out four, six minutes in a row, where now you're getting out there, you're getting your legs going, you're staying involved," Parise said. "I think it makes a big difference."

'Trigger moments' turn into offense

Not only did the Devils kill penalties better than anyone has since 1967-68 -- they allowed a mere 27 power-play goals in 259 times shorthanded this season -- they are proving to be equally adept at scoring while down a man.

The Devils scored 15 shorthanded goals this season, three more than the next-closest team. Parise credits the work Barr has done teaching the forwards to spot chances to jump on the puck carrier -- "trigger moments, they're called" -- and go on the attack.

Zajac said there was no need to give any advice to Parise while he was out with his injury: "He's a born PK specialist. He's quick, so he can cover a lot of ice. He's got a good stick, he can knock down passes. He anticipates plays well. Those are all things that make him successful on the PK."

"We pressure at the right times," Parise said. "We're really learning when our trigger moments are, when to jump. When we're doing it, we're attacking with all four guys. A lot of times, we'll outnumber teams on the power play. We make it harder. Then all of a sudden once we got some shorthanded goals, we started to get a little bit of cockiness on the penalty kill. We know we're going to kill them off, and we know most times we're going to get momentum off of it. It's fun now."

Parise and Henrique tied for the League lead in shorthanded points with seven. Henrique's four shorthanded goals tied for the most in the NHL, although the rookie credits Parise for setting him up with tap-ins on his goals.

The Calder Trophy candidate said killing penalties is nothing new for him. The 22-year-old averaged about 30 goals per season while playing for the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL, but said associate coach D.J. Smith had him killing penalties throughout his junior career and it's helped him during his first season in the NHL.

"I've PK'd pretty much my whole life, all four years in Windsor," Henrique said. "It was something we tried to really focus on. We always had one of the best PKs. It was something we took pride in. Everyone would PK. It was a big part of our game. We were aggressive, and any time there was a bobbled puck, we'd jump on them and take away their time and space. If you give great players time and space, they make great plays."

Over the course of the season, as the Devils' reputation grew as a team that can be dangerous shorthanded, Parise and Kovalchuk said they could see teams making the safe move while on the power play. Not only were the Devils the aggressors while shorthanded, but they were taking away the aggressiveness of their opponents.

"I'm sure it's gotta be in the back of their minds," Parise said. "We lead in the League in shorthanded goals by quite a bit. We can be dangerous on the PK and I know from our standpoint, when we're playing a team that has a lot of shorties, you definitely have to be aware of it and make sure you're backchecking hard. No one wants to backcheck on the power play, but like we've shown, if you don't, we can make you pay."

"When we play against teams that have a PK that's offensive-minded, we have to remind ourselves not to turn the puck over and be sharp on the blue line," Kovalchuk said. "I'm sure the other teams that play us, it's in their heads a little bit."

The goals are nice, but DeBoer said the overall effectiveness of his penalty killers has sapped the life from teams at different times this season.

"It's not only become a weapon offensively where we score goals," DeBoer said, "but we grab momentum in games just by frustrating the other team and creating offensive chances off it."

More than just shorthanded goals

DeBoer said he was wary of having his best players attempting to block shots, but that hasn't been much of an issue for the Devils as a whole. They rank 30th in the NHL in blocked shots, which means it's up to the last line of defense most times, and the goaltenders have been just as exceptional as the forwards.

Johan Hedberg and Brodeur rank second and fourth, respectively, in shorthanded save percentage this season. Vancouver's Cory Schneider leads the NHL in that category at .958, with Hedberg next at .914 and Brian Elliott third at .911, mere percentage points ahead of Brodeur.

"I was definitely excited, because sometimes when you get two, three penalties in a row and you're not playing the PK, you can get out of the game a little bit. Now you're always in the moment, and it's nice to be part of it, too." -- Ilya Kovalchuk on joining the PK unit this year

Schneider, Hedberg and Elliott serve as backups, leaving Brodeur as the best in the business at stopping pucks while shorthanded among starters. Brodeur said the aggressive nature of the Devils' PK leaves him in a better position to make saves, but it's what's happening outside of the defensive zone that's making a difference.

"It's not really in-zone. We try not to stay in our zone for too long," Brodeur said. "That's because guys are fresh all the time. It all goes with the first faceoff of the power play. You win that, you clear it, you put the pressure on them and it could take 30 seconds to get back in our zone. You lose that faceoff, and you're in your zone the whole time. It's a combination of a lot of different things. It's been working out pretty good."

While the Devils' forwards aren't getting in front of many shots, defensemen Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador have been anchors on the back end.

Volchenkov and Salvador rank 1-2 in blocked shots on the Devils and have picked up some of the slack caused by the season-ending injury to Henrik Tallinder. Salvador said it's comforting to have forwards on the PK unit that can anticipate the defense's chips up the wall and get there first, but the record-setting success has involved contributions from everywhere.

"It's just a whole team effort," Salvador said. "It starts with that. (Barr) has done a great job of setting the expectations each night and having a game plan each night. Everyone is taking a lot of pride in it this year."

"It's been good. Everybody's on the same page," Brodeur said. "Dave Barr has done a great job day in and day out to expose some of the places on that power play where we can put pressure, where the trigger moments are, when to go, when not to go. I think it goes back to the commitment of guys staying fresh when we kill. The fact that we're using so many forwards, that's what creates that energy that we have."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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