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Stars improving penalty kill unit crucial to their success

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

While the Dallas Stars’ sagging power play has received some attention lately for its recent struggles, the club’s penalty killing unit has flourished after enduring some early-season difficulties.

Heading into Thursday night’s 5-2 loss to San Jose, the Stars had converted just once on 25 power play opportunities over a 10-game span, so their 1-for-3 performance against the Sharks was a positive step forward in that aspect of the game.

The PK, though, has been rolling along for quite a while. After nullifying all three San Jose extra-man chances, including a pivotal 5-on-3 advantage for a full 1:50 early in the second period that temporarily turned the tide in their favor, the Stars have now killed 22-of-24 disadvantages over their last eight contests for a stellar 91.7 kill percentage.

“The 5-on-3 kill there was big and that allowed us to tie it up,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan of the Sharks game, which saw Dallas score just 3:33 after the epic kill on their own power play, to even the contest 2-2 midway through the second period.

After a somewhat forgettable eight-game stretch in which the Stars allowed 11 goals on 41 opportunities, the penalty killing unit’s recent performance has been a significant improvement. While their season rank has increased to 14th in the NHL, the Stars’ efficiency over their last eight would put them second.

Gulutzan and his staff have placed some additional emphasis on the PK lately, both in practice and in the meeting room, and it has clearly paid off.

“I think the way Glen set it up, it kind of allowed the penalty killing to forget what happened before,” noted associate coach Willie Desjardins, who counts the penalty kill unit as one of his primary responsibilities, teaming with assistant Paul Jerrard. “We weren’t killing as well, and just concentrated game-on-game and it seemed a little better. I think that you have to have a focus. The key is that you have to have four guys who are willing to outwork their five guys and that’s a tough challenge. But I think overall, I think the focus has just been better.”

“I think that we just kind of take it game-by-game and not worry about our overall percentages, and I think that guys are really buying into the ‘us four outwork their five’ mentality,” added rugged defenseman Mark Fistric. “I think that guys are working really hard and pressuring on entries to make it really hard for other teams to set up. If you give good players, and there’s so many in the NHL, if you give them time, they’re going to make plays and they’re going to hurt you.”

The Stars understand the importance of a good PK unit, especially since that sub-par 30-for-41 stretch was a contributing factor to their horrendous five-game losing streak in which they were outscored 21-4.

“It’s special teams. We try to be good on the PK because you don’t want to give up power play goals, because those can be the game-winning goal,” pointed out winger Radek Dvorak, who averages 2:06 of shorthanded ice time per outing, second among forwards on the squad. “Every game, we try to work on this stuff and all the penalty killers work hard.”

“You’re going to win in this league by special teams,” echoed agitator Steve Ott. “Every team is too tight now. You look at the standings, the Western Conference, it’s that tight throughout mainly because of special teams. You’re winning and dying by special teams.”

One of the most important improvements the Stars have made lately has been in reducing their overall total of opposition power plays. Playing a man-down 93 times over their first 19 games gave the Stars an average of 4.9 times short-handed per outing, which includes a span of four games in which Dallas was down a man 23 times (an average of 5.75), surrendering seven goals. In stark contrast to that, the Stars have allowed 24 opponent extra-man opportunities over the last eight for a per-game average of three.

Such a dramatic shift has had a major impact for the Stars.

“The first thing is discipline, so we don’t have as many kills,” said Desjardins. “I think that’s been really big lately, we haven’t killed as much and I think that helps us a lot.”

“I think we’re more disciplined, so we don’t put the other team on the power play as much and that’s a big part of it,” added blueliner Stephane Robidas, who leads the club in shorthanded ice time with a 3:09 average. “If you kill like six or seven penalties a night, there’s a good chance you might get scored on. I think we’re just going in with the mentality that we got to outwork the power play and we try to do the little things.”

Of course, another important component of the PK unit is always the team’s last line of defense, the goaltender. Between usual starter Kari Lehtonen and backup Andrew Raycroft, who has started four consecutive contests due to Lehtonen’s recent groin injury, the Stars have received outstanding netminding this season.

Lehtonen led the NHL with 13 victories when he first got hurt almost two weeks ago and is still tied for third, while posting a stellar 2.34 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. Since then, Raycroft has come on and played well in his place, coming up with huge 35-plus save performances in wins over Colorado and Ottawa.

“The goaltender’s always the biggest (factor), your best penalty killer,” said Desjardins. “(The opposition) is going to get something every game, they’re going to find something and when they do, that’s when your goaltender has to be big.”

The Stars utilize a somewhat aggressive pressuring style on the PK, but there is no substitute for hard work when trying to kill off an important opposition power play.

“You try not to let them set up,” said Robidas. “The best thing is to pressure them right away so they don’t have time to set up, where they have to rim pucks and the puck stays on the wall and that’s when you can get pressure and get the puck out. It’s frustrating to a team if they have to go down the ice a few times before they can set up in the zone.”

“You can’t kill the whole penalty in your own zone, so you got to get some up-ice pressure and you got to get some clears,” added Desjardins. “And then the other thing is you have face-offs, you got a chance to get the puck out, so there’s quite a few little things that are part of the kill. Once the other team is in your zone and set up, then get in the shooting lanes and if the puck gets to the net, to collapse to the net. It’s pretty basic, most of the time you’re just finding lanes for passes or for shots.”

So while the Stars work out the kinks on their power play unit, their penalty kill will continue to keep them competitive in games.

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