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Dirty Work

by Ken Sins / Dallas Stars

An inside look at what makes the Dallas Stars a solid penalty kill unit, and what players need to be effective when down a man.

The Stars are trying to protect a 4-1 lead in third period of their home opener against Boston on October 5, but things are about to get sticky. Dallas has been whistled for a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty, putting the Boston Bruins’ power play on the job.

Coach Dave Tippett sends out Jere Lehtinen, Jeff Halpern, Sergei Zubov and Trevor Daley as his first penalty-killing unit. Zubov uses a strong stick to pry the puck loose along the boards and fire it down the ice so Tippett can dispatch his second group – Stu Barnes, Niklas Hagman, Mattias Norstrom and Stephane Robidas. Norstrom buys time when he clears the puck from behind the net, and Hagman contributes another key play when he blocks a shot from close range to complete the kill.

The Stars aren’t quite safe yet, however, as Robidas is soon whistled for hooking, and the Bruins have another man-advantage situation.

This time Tippett goes with Lehtinen, Halpern, Daley and Philippe Boucher, and it’s Boucher who gets the first clear after gaining possession in the left corner. Mike Modano, Brenden Morrow, Zubov and Norstrom form the second unit, and they polish off the kill to preserve the Stars’ three-goal cushion.

Notice the players Tippett has called on to kill the pair of penalties. All of the team’s top-end talent takes a turn, including scoring threats Modano, Lehtinen and Morrow.

It wasn’t so long ago that NHL players viewed penalty-killing duties on a par with washing practice gear and sweeping the dressing room floor. Superstars weren’t usually asked to perform such mundane tasks, and if they were, it was often viewed as punishment by the coach for lazy or lackluster play.

“These days, that’s the way to win,” Tippett said. “It’s what you have to do to be successful and players recognize that. A lot of players now look at the penalty kill as a key part of their identity as a player.”

Assistant Coach Rick Wilson, who’s in charge of the Stars’ penalty-killing unit, thinks it’s important to occasionally add a goal-scorer threat to the mix on the PK.

“You see a lot of offensive people out there killing penalties because there is another threat,” Wilson said. “That’s become more prevalent over the last eight or so years. If you get a sustained period of penalty kills in a row, you’d have your top players sitting on the bench and losing the rhythm of the game and cooling off. That’s why Modano and Brenden will kill. Joe Sakic will kill. They’re good players so they can be good at it because they have the anticipation, the total focus. So we roll those guys through.

“Penalty killing is a way for guys to have a bigger bite, an opportunity for more minutes. Oftentimes you spend half a season sorting out some of that. Not all of it, of course. Lehtinen is a good penalty killer, you know that. Halpern, you know. But you want to bring in some young guys, too. Eventually you find out if they’re effective.”

The Stars have a history of penalty-killing proficiency. Last season they were 11th in the league, denying 84.4 percent of opposing power plays. They were 10th in the NHL in 2005-06. In 1998-99, the season they won the Stanley Cup, the Stars were sixth in the league on the PK, and the following year when they returned to the Cup Finals, they were the NHL leaders for the second time in club history, blunting 89.3 percent of opponents’ man-advantage situations.

So what makes an outstanding penalty-killer? Power-play experience helps. So does effort.

“He has to have hockey smarts and the ability to understand both sides, the power play as well as the penalty kill, and the willingness to work hard at it,” Barnes said. “It’s teamwork and hard work. You’re at a disadvantage. But the advantage you have over a power play unit is maybe just outworking them. Preparation and knowing the other team is a big part of it. We’re lucky here to have guys willing to battle hard.”

Said Tippett: “First and foremost, you are outnumbered so your work ethic has to be at a premium because there are times when you can outwork a power play. The second is anticipation. If you can do two jobs at one time, that helps you level the playing field. And the third thing is courage. You have to be willing to block shots, to take hits to make plays, to do all the gritty grunt work that isn’t pretty, but is effective. It’s a prerequisite of the penalty kill.”

Two elements have always gone into successful penalty killing: sound goaltending and winning faceoffs. In the nets, the Stars have an effective tandem in Marty Turco and Mike Smith. And they have centers who can handle defensive draws in Halpern, Modano and Barnes.

“Every team would say their goalie is their best penalty killer, and after that it’s a center who can win faceoffs and win the top part of that box, that’s huge,” Wilson said. “Obviously, shot-blockers like Boucher and guys who can clear pucks like Norstrom are big. We have a lot of good penalty killers who have different strengths. ‘Zubie’ isn’t going to outmuscle a guy in front, but he can outthink them and his stick is strong. He uses different tactics. Quickness, winning puck races, those are huge. But the goalie is the key.”

Said Norstrom: “I give Marty and Smitty so much credit. Look at the teams that are way up there, their goalies are usually great.”

Turco’s puck-handling ability is a plus during a penalty kill.

“The goalie is the backbone of your penalty kill,” Barnes said. “And it’s not just making saves. His ability to handle the puck makes it difficult for teams to dump the puck in. He’s a huge part of it.”

A blocked shot can be a big play on a penalty kill, but having your defenseman fall in front of the puck can also obstruct your goalie’s view.

“Letting the goalie see the puck, that’s big,” Daley said.

Zubov’s knowledge of positioning and his puck-handling ability place him near the top of the list of the Stars’ most effective penalty killers.

“Zubie is out there for 30-plus minutes a game for a reason,’’ Morrow said. “And he doesn’t do it with a big frame, a big body. He does it more with his head, thinks the plays through, sees plays happen before they do. We have a huge advantage when he’s out there.”

Penalty-killing is a physically demanding task. Shifts must be short to keep fresh bodies on the ice.

“We’ll run 20- to 30-second shifts and have a lot of energy,” Wilson said. “They’re running through the mill quick. Teams are running one-minute power-play shifts so you’re seeing 30-second shifts on the PK, maybe three units out there before the power play is off the ice.”

Added Norstrom: “With the new rules, you need to keep pressure on the other team so you have to have fresh bodies out there throughout the entire PK to sustain that pressure. You used to sit back in that classic four-man box and wait for time to run out. Now you need to hammer down on the other team and make those five guys work extra hard. I think the shifts are shorter than they used to be because you’re asking a lot out of your penalty killers. You can’t just stand out there and be a shot-blocker. You need to be able to kill penalties by ragging the puck, holding onto it and wasting time that way. Win the draw and you can take 30 seconds away. It’s critical.”

Battling in front of the net to limit rebounds is another key.

“What we do in front of the goaltender is important,” Wilson said. “Second shots are big. With the rules, you’re not allowed to fight for your space as aggressively as you used to. Now you have to give up a little of that space at times. So second opportunities is a battle whether it’s with a strong stick like Zubov has, or with size and strength like Norstrom and Boucher.

“We want guys out there with a real strong work ethic because there’s so much stopping and starting and quick movements. You have to have courage, be willing to block shots and battle along the boards. You don’t have to make skilled plays but you have to have poise with the puck to make the play that’s required, which is usually to find an opening and get it down."

Preparation has become a vital penalty-killing element. Studying video of the opposing power play is a must for every team.

“You need a good understanding of passing lanes, and that’s something that can be coached through video,” Wilson said. “It’s pressure at the appropriate time, patience, working together. You have to be tight, be a group of four, and work with the goalie to be the best penalty killer. You’ve got to take something away. You’ve got to be aware of who’s out there, who’s hot, who are they feeding.”

Said Barnes: “We’re very well prepared for every game. Our coaching staff does an unbelievable job of sniffing out where teams like to go and where we need to be. The positioning on penalty killing has become so precise that when you’re off by a foot or two, it makes a difference. We do a good job of looking at those videos and the coaching staff harping on us to be in those spots. It’s the age of video, to be able to see every game, every power play, that’s one way the game has changed at lot. Prep now is much more involved than it used to be. You have to be aware of more than players. You have to be aware of plays.”

Teams used to adhere to a standard box formation on the penalty kill, but it’s now more sophisticated. Video study can show where opposing snipers like to get the puck so the PK unit can take those areas away.

“Players are too good now,” Halpern said. “If you give them time, they’re gonna make plays on you. As a penalty killer, you’re doing three, four jobs at a time. You’re taking away a passing lane, taking away a shooting lane, taking away the wall. It’s become as complex as the power play.”

Said Morrow: “We go over tendencies, who’s on the ice. Ryan Smyth likes to set up in front of the net. We know who likes to shoot, who likes to pass, where he likes to go. So it’s evolved the last few years. Even during the game you can look at video between periods and adapt.”

Early in the season, coaches will mix-and-match penalty killers to determine the most effective pairings of forwards and defensemen. By the end of the regular season, trust has been established inside each group. Of course, penalty killers must also be able to adjust in case a member of their group lands in the penalty box himself.

Said Stars winger Joel Lundqvist: “You’ve got to trust each other, that each guy does his job and takes his lane. There are no secrets. It’s playing tight together. You play these teams a lot so you know what they’re doing. It’s better knowing the guys on the ice. It’s easier when you play with the same guys.”

Shorthanded goals can provide a lift for your team, but not at the risk of leaving the rest of the unit vulnerable.

“You never look for a goal unless the other team makes a mistake,” Lundqvist said. “It doesn’t happen too often. You’re mainly looking to take time off the clock.”

One of Tippett’s primary functions during his NHL career was killing penalties, so he knows what it takes to be effective in the role.

“I took a great deal of pride in that,” Tippett said. “We have guys on this team who are willing to pay the price to be good penalty killers and those are key ingredients in winning clubs.”
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