At least Senators’ PK is special
When the Ottawa Senators were a consistent threat to win the Eastern Conference, their special teams were, well, special.
A power play led by Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden was balanced by the penalty killing of Hossa, Chara, Redden, Mike Fisher, Antoine Vermette and Chris Phillips.
A little more than two weeks before their first playoff test, the Senators are getting it half right these days. Gradually, the PK unit is climbing to elite status, sixth overall as of Thursday with a kill rate of 84.4 per cent. The power play? Now there’s a work in progress heading into the playoffs. Ottawa’s conversion rate of 15. 6 was 27th in the league.
In 2003-04, Alfredsson, Hossa, Havlat et al produced a league-high 80 power-play goals. This year’s team has half as many, 40, with eight games left to improve on it.
In Buffalo tonight, the Sens face a Sabres team very much like themselves — mediocre power play, strong PK.
Minus any 30-or 40-goal scorers, both clubs rely on a strong team game and goaltending.
It’s largely because the Sabres have Ryan Miller in goal and the Senators don’t that Ottawa is seven points behind Buffalo in the Northeast Division. Miller, to use a well-worn hockey cliché, is his team’s best penalty killer.
The Senators, on the other hand, have almost too many to name.
But a couple of their best and brightest arrived in midseason trades, defence man Andy Sutton and centre Matt Cullen, whose faceoff wizardry adds another dimension to the kill unit.
“We probably under-estimated how good a penalty killer (Cullen) is,” says Greg Carvel, the Senators’ assistant coach in charge of penalty killing. “The biggest thing he does is win draws for us.”
Including, as head coach Cory Clouston says, “about six in a row” during a key disadvantage against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday. Cullen was 13-for-15 in the circle, foreign numbers for a Senators centre.
Carvel points to two main reasons for Ottawa’s vault up the ranks to sixth on the PK list:
Personnel and a belief in the system they use.
It starts with a big wall in the back end.
“When you’re able to throw out Philly (Phillips), Volchy (Anton Volchenkov), Suttsy (Sutton), (Filip) Kuba and Carks (Matt Carkner), those are five big bodies, so that’s a big plus for us, and a definite advantage over previous years,” Carvel says.
“When I first came here, we had Chara. We had a very good team, but he was a big presence. I think we kind of have a bit of that presence again, which is a big help.”
Along with his ability to win big face-offs, Cullen has taken away a lot of Alfredsson’s time on the PK, leaving him fresher. That will be important in the playoffs.
Up front, Ottawa has put pressure on opponents, limiting their ability to set up on the power play. Goaltender Brian Elliott made a couple of saves during the Flyers’ critical five-on-three for a full two minutes, but the Senators kept the Flyers on the outside for most of the advantage.
Centre Mike Fisher was a big part of that kill. On routine four-against-five situations, the Senators usually look to Chris Kelly and Jarkko Ruutu as the first forwards over the boards.
Milan Michalek, before he hurt his knee, joined Fisher to provide a speed threat while shorthanded. Michalek has two short-handed goals, as does Cullen, though both came while he was still a member of the Carolina Hurricanes. Alfredsson, Phillips, Jesse Winchester and Zach Smith have Ottawa’s other “shorties.”
The veteran Phillips says the unit adjusts to opponents, then relies on the usual ingredients.
“That determination level is always what makes penalty killing successful,” Phillips says. “Guys are blocking shots and are playing smart. When one guy is pressuring, the other guy reads off him.
“Especially with the two forwards, the consistency of having two guys that work together all the time helps as well.”
Carvel and Clouston set up a penalty-killing system at the start of the season, and Carvel instructs the group with the briefest of scouting videos prior to each game. They keep things simple, apply the same basic system to each opponent, with subtle changes based on what that team likes to do on the power play.
“We can’t go in every night and change everything due to an opponent’s tendencies,” Carvel says.
But they know what those tendencies are — they’re as plain as the video on the screen. If a team likes to set up on the so-called “half boards,” defenders will try to shut down that lane to the net or goal crease.
“In the zone, we pressure when we can, guys know their responsibility,” Carvel says. “Positioning-wise, I think we do a real good job. We don’t give up a lot of back door, tic-tac-toe goals.”
They don’t score many of those, either, which is why the Senators have two power plays to worry about — their opponents, and their own.