Power-play key to on-ice survival

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:43 AM ET

The last few years, the London Knights power play has looked like an expensive and celebrated work of art.

The Western men's hockey team, however, opened its season last week by surrendering three short-handed goals to Windsor. Going from the ice to the art world, that's a more terrifying display than Edvard Munch's masterpiece, The Scream.

"For the first few weeks, because of school and mid-terms, we like to work on conditioning more than than anything else, like watching video of other teams' tendencies," Mustangs head coach Clarke Singer said. "But we hope we don't have to go through anything like that (three shorties) ever again. Early on, I like to give the veterans a chance to work the power play, but I like to try everyone in that role before deciding on who'll be on the top unit later in the season.

"In Ontario university hockey, we finally, this year, adopted the new rules of the NHL and the OHL and it'll take a little bit of time to iron everything out."

No one questions the power play has become the vital source of offence in today's game. In Western's opener, there were 35 minors called, an infraction-fest the OHL went through early last year.

But no matter how many chances a team gets, different coaches have different approaches to trying to score with the advantage.

Dale Hunter's Knights are above 30 per cent on the power play. Every opposing coach tries to stay out of the penalty box against the Knights, because it remains the most obvious way to contain them.

Hunter gets credit for the Knights' power play. He's stuck with five forwards and leaves most of them out there for the entire two minutes.

"You have skilled guys and you want to use those guys even though the risk of giving up more short-handed goals is there," he said before his team scored three power-play goals in a 5-4 shootout win over Kitchener Sunday. "You use what you have and put the best guys to fit the parts. A couple years ago, we put defenceman Danny Syvret on the power play because he made good decisions with the puck. Another time, we had Dennis Wideman out there because he had a big shot."

One difference from last year is Hunter can run the puck out of both sides of the offensive end.

"Last year, we went from the left side mostly because of the way our sticks went (mostly left-handed shots with Dylan Hunter and Rob Schremp). This time, we can go from the right or left depending on how the other team defends us."

In the OHL, a win in October holds the same value as it does in March, so it's a bonus to hit the ice flying the way the Knights have. In the university ranks, Singer has learned the hard way that it pays to head into the playoffs on a roll.

"The other night, we switched our lines after the first period and we were running three lines for our power play," he said. "I always like to have everybody involved in special teams, because you never know when someone gets hurt and then you have a hole to fill."

Penalty-killing teams historically try to force the opposition to dump the puck in and keep them from setting up around the goal.

"Ever since I've been here, we've pressured the puck on the penalty kill and now, 85 per cent of teams are doing it against us," Singer said.

Hunter has marvelled at the composure of youngsters like Sam Gagner and Pat Kane on the power play.

"I'm not surprised they've done it because they're talented, but I'm surprised at how fast they've been able to do what we want them to do."

HOCKEY GAMES

Western Mustangs vs. Waterloo

When: Tonight, 7 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre

Tickets: Available at the JLC box office, online at www.westernmustangs.ca or by calling 1-866-455-2849.

London Knights vs. Owen Sound

When: Tomorrow, 7:30 p.m. at the JLC

The matchup: OHL leading scorer Sam Gagner will try to keep his nine-game point streak alive against the Attack.


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