VANCOUVER, B.C. – It’s the football equivalent of a goal-line stand, or a relief pitcher fanning the side with the bases loaded in baseball.
Killing penalties, especially a succession of them, has brought a game-changing impact to Vancouver Canucks, who await an opponent in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Just ask the St. Louis Blues, who barely got a sniff on their power play as the Canucks killed all but one of 24 penalties in an opening-round sweep.
“With the number of penalties that we had, our best players were sitting on the bench,” penalty-kill specialist Ryan Johnson said Saturday after practice.
“When we go out and get a good kill, it definitely gives those guys some excitement or a little bit of a boost. You saw our PK get some big kills (against St. Louis) to hang us in there and our power play scored some big goals to put us ahead. That can be the turning point.”
The penalty kill can come with a price. Johnson, who constantly sacrifices his body to block shots, missed 20 regular-season games when the pain of a severely broken right index finger and a left foot fracture became too intense.
But that hasn’t changed his style. He fearlessly had nine shot blocks against the Blues but sometimes struggled to the bench.
Penalty killing was amplified in the St. Louis series, which featured three one-goal games. One of the Canucks’ best displays came in overtime of Game 4 when they killed off a minor, then a four-minute sentence to Ryan Kesler.
Alex Burrows later sent Vancouver to the next round with an even-strength goal off the rush.
“Earlier in the season we couldn’t kill a penalty and it would end up in the back of our net, or the two minutes felt like forever, felt like a period,” Burrows said.
“Now that we’re feeling good, even in St. Louis when Ryan was unlucky and took a four-minute (penalty) for a high stick, we felt we do it for sure.
“We didn’t get nervous. We didn’t think the game was over. We just thought we’d kill this and move on.”
Entering Saturday’s play, the Canucks were ranked second among the 16 playoff teams with a kill rate of 95.8 per cent.
The Boston Bruins were first at 100 per cent but only had to deal with eight short-handed situations in their sweep of the Montreal Canadiens.
Vancouver’s improvement from a pedestrian, 16th-ranked regular-season kill rate of 81.4 per cent came down to believing in your teammates, said associate coach Rick Bowness.
“Penalty killing is all trust. If one guy’s going to go (and attack the puck), three guys have to read off him,” he said. “It takes a little while sometimes to build that trust.”
It’s also about starting with a face-off win in your own end and Johnson has dominated, gaining 61.8 of the draws he’s taken.
“With the rule change (locating the face-off in the offending team’s zone) that’s everything,” Johnson said.
“Winning a draw and clearing it down the ice is 40 seconds, especially with the way our guys skate. We can get up and press them, make them stop and set up. It’s a huge, huge difference-maker.”
The Canucks have also become more aggressive when down a player, pressing opposing point men with the tenacity of a terrier protecting his last bone.
“If you watch our penalty kill in the early part of the year, we were being a lot less aggressive and letting them dictate and go through their progressions,” Johnson said. “Now we’re forcing teams to go where we want.”
Penalty-killing duties aren’t limited to role players. Twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who both led the Canucks with 82 points in the regular season, perform that task in key situations and almost scored in overtime against the Blues.
“I think the key difference was we were giving up the right shots and we knew (goalie Roberto Luongo) is usually going to save those,” Henrik said of the improvement.
However, the best penalty kill is staying out of the box altogether, said Henrik.
“If we’re going to go deeper and play teams like Anaheim, San Jose or Detroit,” he said, “they’ve got some really skilled players and you can’t spend that much time in the penalty box if you want to win games.”
Notes: Vancouver was 2-2 against the Wings, 4-2 against the Flames and 2-2 against the Blackhawks during the regular season. … Defenceman Willie Mitchell returned to practice Saturday but left early, saying some soreness remained, although he declined to say where. … Sami Salo, out for the series-clinching game against the Blues, missed his second straight practice with a lower-body injury. … The Canucks resume workouts on Monday.