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Desperation And Hard Work Paying Off

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Of all the parts of the Dallas Stars’ game that declined a bit over the last two weeks, the one aspect that did not suffer at all and continued to shine is penalty killing.

Even as all the Stars’ key injuries caught up to them and contributed to their recent season-long five-game losing streak, their ability to nullify opposing teams’ power plays did not diminish at all.

And after killing 5-of-6 man-disadvantages Tuesday night in a 4-1 victory in San Jose, which had the NHL’s third-ranked power play and had converted 11-of-35 opportunities heading into the night, the Stars have now erased 44 of their last 49, dating back 13 games to Feb. 6.

“The key to that is we’ve done a pretty good job structurally, there’s been a lot of sacrifice and blocking shots, and it’s ended in some injuries, but we’ve done that,” Stars coach Dave Tippett explained, noting that philosophy cost the team the services of center Toby Petersen with a broken foot. “Goaltending has been strong, so the elements you think about when you’re penalty killing are structure, willing to block shots and good goaltending, have all been in place.”

“Any time penalty killing is doing well, it’s almost directly related to how well the goalie is playing, because he’s your best penalty killer,” added associate coach Rick Wilson, who oversees the penalty killing. “And certainly, that’s been a big part of the last month or six weeks. So that’s first and foremost.”

Indeed, Turco’s play has been a major key to the unit’s effectiveness over the last two months. After a sub-par outing Saturday in a 4-3 loss to Anaheim, he rebounded with a solid effort Tuesday, turning aside 24 Shark shots in the triumph. Even with the five-game losing streak, four of which he was in goal for, Turco sports a 12-8-0 record in his last 20 games, with an excellent 1.98 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.

“I don’t think he’s played as well the last couple of games he played,” Tippett said Monday, “but before that, we went through a stretch where he played very well. We had a stretch of games where we were giving up probably more chances than we would have liked and he was cleaning up all the messes. The last couple of games, we couldn’t find ways to score and I think he could have played better. We need everybody playing at their top level to give us a chance to win.”

Wilson continued listing the other elements he believes has led to the Stars’ improvement in penalty killing.

“I think that we’ve been able to establish a little more familiarity with our people, guys like (Brian) Sutherby, Petersen, people that maybe for the first month weren’t quite as confident or familiar with the tactical part of it,” Wilson said. “And now they’ve grown and are far more comfortable with the tactics and because of that, the third part is, I think we’ve been able to get a little more aggressive within the tactics and that’s something we always like to do, given the right reads. Now there’s more automatics and I think that’s helping us a great deal.”

A couple of the club’s key penalty killers agree on some of the ingredients that need to be present to maintain a successful PK unit.

“Good penalty kill starts with a lot of hard work,” stated winger Steve Ott. “We have very capable guys of having great penalty killing. It’s outworking their power play and also doing the things that your teammates rely on you to do - block shots, get in shooting lanes and also, when you have a good goalie in back, he can definitely be your number one penalty killer.”

“I think what I’ve seen the last few games, we’re on the same page, everybody reacts to everyone, that’s the main thing,” added new center Steve Begin, who has played three games since his acquisition from Montreal last Thursday. “If you know that forwards are going to go hard and press, everybody has to go and that’s what we’re doing right now. Guys are blocking shots and as soon as the other team dumps it, we’re first on it, so that’s what we need - hard work. It’s no secret. Get in those lanes and I think if we do that, we’re fine.” 

This recent stretch has seen the penalty kill performing better than it has all season. After leading the entire NHL most of last season in penalty killing percentage, Dallas finished second with a stellar 85.5 percent kill rate (301-of-352). But the squad got off to a rough start in October and November, uncharacteristically surrendering lots of goals, including many on opposing power plays, and hovered among the league’s worst much of that time. 

As recently as Jan. 17, they ranked 27th in the 30-team league with 77.3 percent efficiency (133-of-172). But things gradually improved and the Stars have moved up to 20th, having surrendered just 11 power play goals against in their last 83 short-handed situations.

“Trace it right back to the start,” Wilson said of the early rough patch. “The goalie was struggling a little bit, continuity with new people, we had guys killing who weren’t used to it, at least not on a basis where they could really act on an automatic basis, on a conscious plane, and we were getting caught a little bit just looking. We’ve been able to get more aggressive with our tactics, because of the familiarity and the togetherness of the group - the more they’ve done it, the more they can read on an automatic basis.”

“It was just getting everybody together on the same page,” Ott said of the PK’s turnaround. “You’re looking for the big save, plus looking for a guy even to get in the lane to block (a shot) - all the things had to come together. Of late, we added a great penalty killer with Begin, he’s one of the best block-shot guys, I think, in the league and that just makes us that much stronger.”

There hasn’t been much debate that the Stars were working hard and showing plenty of ‘compete level’ during their recent slump, with the possible exception of Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh. Their problems were more on the offensive side, as they managed to score just six goals in the five losses, so penalty killing was not one of the culprits responsible for the streak.

For them to build on the success of Tuesday night’s stirring win in San Jose and climb back into a playoff position in the crowded Western Conference standings, the Stars will need the PK to continue shutting down opposing power plays.

“When you’re killing a penalty, you’re playing with desperation,” defenseman Darryl Sydor pointed out. “That’s what we need to bring to five-on-five. It’s just maybe that we’re doing a lot of the little things right, but it always starts with urgency and desperation and just hard work.”

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