Thrill Of The Kill
By Josh Plummer
"It's important to have everyone on the same page because if we all work together, everyone will know where each other are all the time," says Alex Burrows.
And that, he says, is simply a matter of putting in the time.
"It's really important to watch the videos before games too because if we just relied on our instincts too much, there would probably be too many gaps, too many seams and too many openings for the other team to make plays."
Based on their penalty kill numbers after 38 games, the Canucks must have been watching a lot of enlightening pre-game videos - like the Shawshank Redemption maybe?
Vancouver have escaped unharmed from the opposition's power-play 86.4% of the time - good for sixth overall, and they've only allowed 30 goals despite being a man down 220 times.
"It's something I take pride in and I know the other guys do too," says Willie Mitchell, a key cog in Vancouver's PK machine. "I think our personnel is great and obviously the more you work together and stay on the same page, the better results you'll have."
"To be in the top six is a little outside where we want to be, but I think we can keep getting better at it. By the end of the year I think we can be in the top three."
After starting slowly, Vancouver seems to have hatched a foolproof plan to crack the top three at GM Place - their percentage jumps all the way to a first ranked 93.2%, with only seven power-play goals scored against them at The Garage all year.
"I don't think we started off the year the way we wanted to on the penalty kill," says Kevin Bieksa, the team's leader in shorthanded ice time. "We had to refocus the PK and pay more attention to detail, but right now we're on the same page and everyone knows what their jobs are on the ice."
"Our forwards are doing a great job at getting in the shooting lanes and our defence has done a good job at not allowing any backdoor goals - obviously Roberto Luongo has helped our PK too."
The new found production can be attributed to coaches and players spending more and more time in the video room studying the noticeable habits of other teams - but sometimes the plays developing on the ice are different than the previous night's homework.
"The power-plays that are unpredictable are always the toughest to defend," says Bieksa. "We do our studies or pre-game video and usually teams have tendencies, but the PP's where all five guys are shooters and all five guys can make plays are the most difficult to defend because you can't just key on one guy, you've got to key on the whole group."
But regardless of how unpredictable a team can be - if the fundamentals of the plan are meticulously followed and if each player knows their specific roles, then the pieces to an effectively killed penalty will fall into place.
"We always play it really tight and we always know what we have to do on the ice," says Burrows. "Roberto has made great saves for us all year and all we have to do is keep getting in the shooting lanes, keep blocking shots and having really good sticks in the seams - that's how we've been successful so far. We take a lot pride in it and always make sure we're solid."
The hours spent in the video room are crucial for mapping out a blueprint, but there are always times when a player has to react quickly to the unforeseen plays in front of them - whether it's an ill-fated pass in skates, a bobbled puck or a team who spends too long looking for the perfect play.
"It's a combination of video and reading and reacting because you're always playing 2 on 1's because they're obviously outnumbering you," says Mitchell. "It's a question of when to pressure a player who is vulnerable to get the puck out or when to sit back and let them basically kill time off the clock when they move the puck around the outside - but definitely the more video you watch and the more players are on the same page, the more big dividends it can pay."
Nearing the midway point of the season, the Canucks have found the perfect combination of trust and execution on the penalty kill - because after-all, there might not be anything better at developing camaraderie than teammates counting on each other to get out of a sticky situation.