GLENDALE, ARI. – Going into Monday night’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Arizona Coyotes are doing something that is nothing less than remarkable. Nobody else in the league is doing it, and it’s possible no team ever has had a 12-game stretch akin to the one the Coyotes are having at the moment.
To be sure, it has never happened to a team for which Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet has ever played. The Coyotes are on an incredible run killing penalties so far this season. In fact, their penalty kill is more offensively productive than their power play. In their first 12 games, the Coyotes have been shorthanded a total of 38 times and not only have the best penalty killing in the league, they also have seven shorthanded goals. With just three power-play goals against, they are badly outscoring their opponents who have the extra man and are converting on 18.4 percent of the shorthanded “opportunities.” By contrast, the Coyotes have just five goals on 34 power-play attempts themselves, for a 14.7-percent success rate.
With the eighth-worst power play in the league, the Coyotes’ play with the extra man has been almost as bad as their play shorthanded has been good. But the late, great Pat Quinn always had a theory that when you add your power-play success rate to your penalty-killing efficiency, you were doing well if you were over 100. And in that context, the Coyotes are 10th in the league in combined special teams at 106.8 – 14.7 percent on the power play and 92.1 on the penalty kill. The best team in the league in that department is the Tampa Bay Lightning at 116.9 – 26.5 percent on the PK and 90.4 percent on the PP. The worst team is the Carolina Hurricanes at 81.2 – 11.8 percent on the PP and 69.4 percent on the penalty kill. Interestingly, the best team in the league at the moment is the Nashville Predators, but they’re sixth-worst in the league in combined special teams at an unimpressive 90.1 – 11.8 percent on the PP and 78.3 percent on the PK.
This actually augurs well for the Coyotes on a couple of fronts. First, ask any coach in the NHL whether, if he had to choose, he’d rather have a good penalty kill or a good power play and all 31 would take the former. When you can’t keep the puck out of the net on the penalty kill, it creates a sense of nervousness in the group and shatters confidence. And you can win in today’s NHL without being good on the power play. But if you’re not good 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill, you have almost no chance of being successful.
“We’re on a roll on the penalty kill,” Tocchet said. “Especially Grabs (Michael Grabner) and Richie (Brad Richardson), they just have that smell. If there’s a play, they just pick it off and their reads are just unbelievable. They just feel it.”
That was no more evident than last Friday night when the Coyotes opened the scoring in their 4-3 overtime win over the Hurricanes. Aggressive play on the penalty kill led to a turnover at the Coyotes blueline, which led to a chance for Alex Goligoski. His shot was stopped, but Michael Ferland was unable to control the rebound after knocking it to the ice with his hand. That small miscue was all Goligoski needed. He moved the puck to Richardson, who was alone in the slot and beat Petr Mrazek on his backhand. It’s what former St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock refers to “the forego” on the penalty kill, a scheme where one man attacks and the other three read off him. He said the Coyotes and the Lightning are the best in the league at doing that.
Richardson and Grabner have combined for five of the Coyotes’ seven shorthanded goals, with Richardson leading the league with three. Both have the speed and instincts to be great penalty-killers on their own, and they’re proving to be lethal when you put them together.
“We started the first day of training camp together working as a tandem,” Richardson said. “We’ve both been doing it a long time and we read well off each other. If we get a chance we’re going to give it a shot. You’re always thinking kill first, but we’ve got some good bounces. He has an exceptional stick. He’s really good at baiting guys to put the puck where he wants and intercepting it. I don’t think those numbers are going to stay that way.”
He and Tocchet agree on that point. The addition of Alex Galchenyuk, who was injured to start the season, should help the Coyotes’ play with the extra man in the long term. “It’s not always going to be like that,” said Tocchet about both the penalty kill and the power play.
But it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if it did.