As the Christmas holiday continues to sneak up on last-minute shoppers, the midpoint of the National Hockey League regular season is also fast approaching. Forty-one games is a great time for head coaches around the league to assess their teams’ strengths and weaknesses while they prepare to jockey for positioning during the stretch run.
When Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma sits down to take a look at the performance of his club following the team’s 41st game on Dec. 30 in New Jersey he will see they hover near the top of the league in goals scored, own one of the top-10 goals-against figures and rank at the top of the charts in hits. If he hasn’t already, and the bet is he has, Bylsma will also notice he trots one of the league’s best penalty-killing units onto the ice every night.
It has gone largely unnoticed, but since Bylsma took over on Feb. 15 of last season the Penguins have killed off 84.9 percent (202-of-238) of the penalties assessed to them. While the sheer numbers speak for themselves, there are reasons why the Penguins have become almost impossible to score against when the other team has an extra skater on the ice.
“I think we have done well,” said assistant coach Tony Granato, who runs the penalty kill. “I think it is a carry-over from last year. I think the guys on the unit know how important it is and they have a ton of pride in making it a big part of our team.
“We have been pretty consistent with our penalty-killing units since (head coach) Dan (Bylsma) took over last year and I think that helps out a lot. That is a big advantage.”
Helping the Penguins maintain such an advantage on the penalty kill up front is a handful of defensively-responsible veterans who are unafraid to perform minute tasks such as stepping in front of shots, having enough discipline to stay in passing lanes to prevent cross-ice passes and a willingness to outwork the power play for loose pucks along the boards.
Leading this charge is 21-year-old Jordan Staal
, who in four seasons has already earned himself a reputation as one of the league’s top penalty killers. Staal is joined at the top of the box by Pascal Dupuis
, Craig Adams
, Matt Cooke
and Max Talbot, although Bylsma sometimes throws Sidney Crosby
or Evgeni Malkin
out there from time to time.
“Most of the time it’s two of the five of us,” Adams said. “I think we all feel comfortable with each other.”
Having a familiarity with one another and all being woven from the same defensive-minded cloth is not enough to just magically make the group effective when shorthanded. They must also be able to read when their partner will play passive or aggressive and react accordingly, and along with that, communication between the two must occur often.
“Reading off one another is a key factor,” Granato said. “I think our group has played together a lot and I think that is one of the advantages of knowing your partner and knowing who you are killing penalties with.”
“I think all over the ice communicating is something that is underrated and it helps everybody out,” Cooke said. “If you can be the eyes for your partner it makes the game a lot easier.”
Communication between Cooke and Staal led directly to Staal’s backbreaking shorthanded goal on Tuesday night which restored the Penguins’ two-goal advantage at a time where Philadelphia was looking to come all the way back from an early 2-0 deficit.
“(Tuesday) night I was able to get the puck and Jordan communicated very well,” Cooke said. “I was able to get the puck to him and we had a two-on-one. He ended up having a great shot for a goal.”
Staal’s wrist shot over the glove of netminder Brian Boucher was the first of two shorthanded tallies on the night as Malkin would add another late in the third period to give the Penguins five such scores on the season, tied for second-most in the NHL behind the six scored by the Chicago Blackhawks.
“Jordan’s goal in particular was huge,” Adams said. “We got off to a quick start and then they got a power-play goal of their own. The game had begun to even out so for Jordan to get a shorthanded goal late in the period obviously put the momentum back on our side.”
Just like the sun rises every day in the east and sets in the west, broadcasters echo Adams’ words about the change in momentum every time the team without the man-advantage finds the back of the cage. As an ace penalty killer throughout his career, Adams had an interesting but logical take on why this is the case.
“In general, I think they are a big momentum swinger,” Adams said. “It almost seems like a two-goal swing, so they are big ones. It’s almost like killing off a five-on-three.”
The forwards have not worked alone in once again becoming one of the top penalty-killing units in the league. Mainstays Mark Eaton, Sergei Gonchar and Brooks Oprik have teamed with offseason addition Jay McKee to provide rock-solid contributions on the back side of the box to help the Penguins kill off 85 of the 101 penalties (84.2 percent) called on them since the first four games of the season.
A huge reason for such a low number of power-play goals surrendered is the lack of shots making their way onto goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
. Instead the defensemen are stepping in front of those chances and taking them off their shin pads. With 79 blocked shots, McKee is leading the way.
“It is something we needed because we lost some of that with Scudsy (Rob Scuderi) and Skillsy (Hal Gill),” Adams said. “You can’t say enough when you have defensemen like that who just eat up shots from the half-wall.”
“The defense, I don’t know how many times we have seen them lie down in front of shots,” Granato said.
Along with blocking shots, McKee says another key along the back end of the penalty kill has been a focus on clearing the puck the length of the ice as fast as possible after the drop of the puck. He believes not giving their opponent the chance to set up in the offensive zone is just as critical as the work the unit does once the power play is set up.
“If teams aren’t set when they come in the zone, especially if it is a dump, we want to try to use the energy we have to stir it up and get the puck down ice,” McKee said. “If within the first 8-10 seconds they get control then we need to back off and play our system.”
After posting three streaks where they have killed off 13 or more consecutive power plays for their opposition and only having once allowed more than one man-advantage tally in their past 30 games, McKee best summed up the unit’s goal for the second half of the season.
“I think we can be better,” McKee said. “If would be great if we could get our penalty kill into the top-five in the league.
“The guys that are out there, that is kind of our role. We take pride in it. ... We all have a lot of pride and we want to be as good as we can with it.”