EDMONTON - It’s been a source of frustration for most of the season and one of the reasons for the Edmonton Oilers current position at the bottom of the NHL standings.
But much like the team itself, it’s looking better of late, and the long, lonely skates from the penalty box to the bench after conceding a power-play goal are becoming less frequent.
“I think our penalty kill has been great of late, we have some guys out there that feel comfortable with each other,” said Oilers’ captain Shawn Horcoff. “There are some new guys out there that really haven’t been out there in the past, but are doing a great job.
“I think we have six forwards rotating through and that just makes it so much easier to keep your energy up and keep it at a high level. We’re doing great and we’re getting great goaltending, which is the key to a good penalty kill.”
In Saturday’s 5-3 win over the Atlanta Thrashers, the Oilers killed off all five penalties in the contest, while scoring three power-play goals of their own.
Previous to that, they were perfect against the Montreal Canadiens, gave up just a goal against the Dallas Stars, and killed off all four penalties in a loss to the Anaheim Ducks.
“I think we have a little bit of a system, we have our partners that we kill with every day and we’re getting comfortable with each other,” said Oilers centre Andrew Cogliano.
“It’s something that had to be better in order for us to win games, and lately it has been.”
For most of the season, the Oilers penalty killing has ranked among the lowest in the league.
The Oilers went through a stretch in January and into early February where they conceded at least one power-play goal in eight consecutive games.
However, things started to turn around on a recent road trip through Columbus and Nashville, where the Oilers killed off eight consecutive power plays.
They then killed another five straight against the Chicago Blackhawks before eventually conceding a goal on the sixth, leading to Cogliano and Theo Peckham receiving simultaneous 10-minute misconducts for voicing their displeasure with the officiating.
“I think what’s happened, is guys have identified killing penalties as being a part of who they are on this team,” said Oilers head coach Tom Renney.
“When you’re trying to create an identity, sometimes that takes time. You have to experience a couple of punches in the gut before you figure that out. But you have to stay with it, you have to stay the course, which is what, really, this season is all about.
“The guys that are on the penalty kill, are very passionate about doing a good job and that’s so important to any aspect of the game.”
Since snapping the eight-game streak of conceding at least one power-play goal, the Oilers have gone on to kill 31 of the 34 opportunities presented to them.
The penalty killers seem to now be taking it personally.
“That’s what I think it should be, it should be a job and you have to take pride in it,” said Cogliano. “I’ve been asked to do PK a lot this year, and I’m taking a lot of pride in it. I want to help the team in that situation.
“Not everyone can be on the power play, not everyone can be on the first line, you have to do the job the coach asks of you and feel comfortable doing it.”
The Oilers’ approach this season is to try and develop penalty killers out of their checking lines, allowing everyone to stay in the game when there’s a bigger emphasis on special teams.
When the penalty-killing unit struggled, the philosophy was questioned. Now that it’s begun to pay dividends, the critics have been silenced.
“I find sometimes, that too many people go into the game with a long laundry list of things they have to do that night and it just confuses them, and all of a sudden, they’re demoralized because they haven’t been able to check off the 14 things they were supposed to do that night,” Renney said.
“But, if all they have to worry about is being an outstanding penalty killer, and be a responsible two-way guy, then that’s just two things and it makes everything a little bit easier.”