The Art of the Penalty Kill

What has this league become?  Over the past two decades we have seen a drastic drop in offense, goal scorers struggling to get to fifty, and only three players have broken the 120 point mark since the new millennium.  Offense have taken a dive, and part of the reason is the adjustments that have been made to the penalty kill.

Currently, six team in the league have managed to kill off everyone of their opponents' powerplays. They are Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Florida, Montreal, Colorado, and Tampa Bay. These teams have had some strong competition so far, so this is not anything to scoff at.  Of these, none are more impressive than the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

In four games this season, Pittsburgh has not only killed every penalty, they have two shorthanded goals. Their PK is actually a plus two right now and that is extremely impressive. Perennial rabble rouser Matt Cooke has one, and the veteran Richard Park has the other.  Cooke scored off of a quick wrist shot that was screened by a Canuck defensemen and Park scored after a slap shot came off of the post and off a defensemen’s leg. Below, we will examine the Penguins penalty kill and see what makes them and other units, so strong while shorthanded.

Forwards

In Pittsburgh, there are about five or six guys that kill penalties at an exceptional rate.  These players are Matt Cooke, Jordan Staal, Craig Adams, Pascal Dupuis, Richard Park, and Joe Vitale. 

Staal is the most impressive killer in part due to his great reach and strength.  He can steal the puck off of anyone and is particularly strong against the boards. When attacking, his power move is tough to defend one-on-one and he is the all time leader for shorthanded goals as a rookie. Matt Cooke is completely different. Cooke provides a great mix of speed and tenacity. His hustle makes opposing players force passes and doesn’t give them any time to think.  Craig Adams is a shot blocker and nothing more. To try and get a puck passed him without being tipped, blocked, or stolen is very difficult.  Pascal Dupuis is all speed and he uses it perfectly.  Covering plenty of space and taking away angles is key on a penalty kill, and Dupuis does all of this. His speed and strong slap shot make him very dangerous in a one on one, or two on one situation.  Vitale and Park both posses strong puck handling skills and great vision, which account for plenty of steals and great clearing shots, even when surrounded.

Defense

Another crucial part to penalty killing is a balanced defense unit. While guys like Chara and Pronger just take up space to force pucks away from their opponents, Pittsburgh does not possess a large defenseman.  Instead, Pittsburgh uses a combo that is just as deadly as their forward core. 

Paul Martin and Zbenyk Michalek make up the top killing unit for the Penguins.  Martin is a smooth skating defenseman that has great vision and stick handling.  Down low he can move the puck by excellent passing or just carrying it right out of the zone.  Michalek is the perfect complement to Martin.  Michalek is a guy that uses desperation defense to its finest.  He is always on all fours taking away any passing lane down low and can be found in every shooting lane, fearlessly blocking slap shots. 

Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang make up the second unit of the kill and provide another complementary combo. Letang is a very fast skating defensemen with exceptional hands.  Letang has recently showed a more physical side, but his skating allows him to not only to be in all positions down low, but join the rush on a shorthanded attempt seamlessly. Orpik, on the other hand, is your typical bruiser.  Orpik hits anyone in front of the net and behind the net, forcing miss played pucks and less traffic around the net.  His game gained notoriety when he laid out three Red Wing players along the boards in fifteen seconds of a penalty kill back in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final. Having defensemen such as this is key for any penalty killing unit.

Goaltending

While the forward core and defensive core is extremely important, the old saying is right, your best penalty killer is typically your goaltender.  Marc-Andre Fleury is a very athletic goaltender and is great on the PK. His athleticism allows him to move quickly from post-to-post, eliminating some of the better cross ice passes and one-timers.  The Penguins also have a good back up in Brent Johnson.  His size and positioning make it tough for any player to find a good angle, even with the open ice on a power play.

Many teams in this league possess great penalty killing units. If any team is able to find the balance of forwards and defense that is shown above, they can count on having a great penalty kill.  Last season’s regular season leader, The Pittsburgh Penguins, are looking to have a top unit once again and throw in their great shorthanded goal scoring, the Penguins look to have the most dangerous PK unit once again. 

While I spoke specifically about the Penguins, I feel I should give my props to other units in the league that possess deadly units as well.  The likes of the Islanders, Rangers, Canadiens, Flyers, and Canucks all possessed great penalty killing units that like to score shorthanded.  I would also like to point out that last season that the Atlantic division had four of the top five shorthanded scoring units, so props to the Atlantic for their great play last season.

As always, comments and questions below, and if you feel your team deserves a shout out for great penalty killing, let me know.