The Carolina Hurricanes’ penalty killers were lined up near the Canes’ blue line, four abreast, with an almost defiant look.
The Tampa Bay Lightning was coming up ice on a power play in the game Sunday, and the Canes were there waiting. Penalty killers in the NHL are like hockey’s special forces, the blueline like a line in the sand and four players prepared to do the dirty work, shorthanded.
The Hurricanes, despite a 6-5 shootout loss Wednesday against the Anaheim Ducks, remained No. 1 in the NHL in penalty killing – and by a fairly wide margin over the St. Louis Blues -- at 91.7 percent. They killed off three penalties, stopping the Ducks on a 4-on-3 power play in overtime.
“That’s something everyone takes a lot of pride in,” forward Jay McClement said. “More importantly, it puts us in position to win games.
“We’re well-prepared and we know teams’ tendencies. The more we’ve gone this year, we’ve gotten better. We’re reading off each other better. Everyone knows where they should be.”
Positioning is a key element of penalty killing, and Canes assistant coach Steve Smith does a good job in teaching it. Smith prepares video sessions and McClement said they are concise and instructive.
But penalty killing also is about being aggressive and determined. You’re outnumbered, so you dig in. You need to anticipate, move quickly, get in shooting lanes, get sticks on pucks.
“We’re pressuring when we need to, making the right reads,” McClement said. “You’re going to give up shots but you want to give up the least dangerous shots.”
And if there are mistakes, as there always will be, goalie Cam Ward has been able to clean many of them up.
The Lightning came into Sunday’s game against the Canes ranked No. 1 on the power play. They had five power plays, including 21 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage in the third period, but the Canes killed off all five.
The Canes were effective in denying entry into the zone during the game but in the third, Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman shot across the line with the puck and had a clean shot. Ward made the save, the puck hitting his right shoulder.
Can you imagine if we had an average to below-average penalty kill? Where would we be? We’d be in a lot of trouble, especially with how tough it’s been for us to score.
Canes coach Bill Peters
When Phil Di Giuseppe scored in overtime, the Canes had a 1-0 victory.
“Can you imagine if we had an average to below-average penalty kill?” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “Where would we be? We’d be in a lot of trouble, especially with how tough it’s been for us to score.”
The Canes had a slow start on the penalty kill in the 2015-16 season and were tied for 28th at 74.6 percent after the first 25 games. By season’s end, they were sixth at 84.3 percent.
This season, the Canes again have relied on McClement, who takes a lot of defensive-zone draws, and forwards Joakim Nordstrom, Viktor Stalberg, Jordan Staal, Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask. Defensemen getting a lot of shorthanded minutes include Ron Hainsey, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Justin Faulk.
Forward Brock McGinn and defenseman Matt Tennyson, after being recalled from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL, easily fit into the P.K. The Checkers use a similar system, making the transition smooth.
“We’ve done a good job involving a lot of people, in meetings and on the ice,” Nordstrom said. “Guys are really committed to doing a good job on the P.K., blocking shots when we have to and being on the same page. That’s huge, working as one unit on the ice.”
The Canes, going into Wednesday’s game, had allowed six goals in 69 shorthanded situations, killing off all 11 penalties in the past three games. Carolina has two shorthanded goals, by Stalberg and Hainsey.
A high-sticking penalty against Stalberg about 13 minutes into the third period Sunday resulted in the Lightning’s 5-on-3. He watched from the penalty box as the Canes’ killers got sticks on pucks and cleared the zone.
“It comes down to having a good system and having guys who work hard and are willing to take pride in playing the kill,” Stalberg said.