By Ryan Stanzel
Director of Communications
Its often said that a hockey teams best penalty killer is its goalie. Lately for the Houston Aeros, that hasnt necessarily been the case, as their goalies often dont see many shots on the penalty kill.
The Aeros, who enter the weekend tied for second in the American Hockey League with an 88.7 percent penalty kill rate, are going through an amazing stretch. In last Saturdays game against Chicago, Houston was shorthanded for seven minutes in the third period including a five-minute Wolves power play and didnt allow a shot in the entire period. The Aeros went on to win 5-4 in a shootout, as they rallied from three goals down.
Id given up four goals on 21 shots and had been shaky, said rookie Josh Harding, who had the best view in the house from his spot in net. I was pretty sure the five-minute power play would decide the game. The guys battled hard out there and didnt let them have a shot for the entire period. To see no shots come in the entire third period, it shows a great effort by the whole PK unit and the whole team.
It was a peculiar situation set up by a freakish play in which Aeros captain Kirby Law was upended by a Wolves defenseman. His skate cut the neck of Chicago goalie Michael Garnett, whose helmet flew off in the collision. Also in the madness, Mark Cullen managed to put the puck in the net, tying the game at 4-4 midway through the third period. Referee Jeff Smith allowed the goal, but also gave Law a major penalty for charging and a game misconduct.
Aeros head coach Todd McLellan credited assistant coach Matt Shaw with orchestrating the third-period magic, while he was dealing with the officials.
The call was strange, McLellan said. We had just come back. We lost a player. Both coaches were frustrated and upset. Matt Shaw did a good job of preparing the penalty killers. They had a few minutes to concentrate on the task at hand.
According to Cullen, the players realized at the time how important the next five minutes would be.
We had a little break, he said. We talked as a team about what a big kill it was. It was going to be a very critical point for not only the game, but maybe the whole season. You hate to put that much emphasis on one kill, but that was so important against a team with a good power play.
In 2003-04, Houston ranked 18th in the league, killing off only 84.7 percent of its shorthanded chances and allowing 55 power-play goals. This season in 48 games, the Aeros have yielded only 24.
What has been the difference?
Our penalty kill is better because we have eight or nine forwards versus six or seven, McLellan said. When you have fewer guys, fatigue factors into it as the season goes on.
Also, players such as Cavanaugh and Marc Cavosie, who last season were counted on as scorers on a team with just a smattering of veterans, can concentrate on the little things this season.
Due to the makeup of our team this season, some players have had to adjust to a different or new role, McLellan said. Many players just see penalty killing as another two-minute segment of the game, but our players take pride and want to be the go-to guys on the penalty kill. Cavosie and Cavanaugh are prime examples. They take pride in penalty kill situations.
Its a role that Cavanaugh relishes.
The big difference from last year is the guys were playing both on the penalty kill and on the power play last year, he said. We never got off the ice. This year, guys like me can look forward to the penalty kill. Guys like me and Cavosie can work as hard as we can on it without saving energy for the power play.
Other players, such as Cullen, have bounced back-and-forth between scoring roles and that of the checking/penalty kill variety. Cullen was one of Houstons leading scorers when Pierre-Marc Bouchard was injured in November and December. Now, hes one of the main reasons the Aeros have allowed only two power play goals in the last nine games.
Theyre able to adapt and theyve been good that way, McLellan said. For me, when the situation comes up and the player looks back at the coach because he wants to be out there, thats great. We have players now that want to be a part of it.
Its by no stretch just the forwards that have been doing the brunt of the penalty killing.
We pretty much have seven of eight guys that can kill at any time, Cullen said. Not many teams can boast that. But basically all of our D can kill too, and kill well. And weve got two good goalies.
In a recent home game, veteran defenseman Todd Reirden blocked a key shot against Milwaukee. It was about to cross the goal line in a game Houston ended up winning 1-0.
Goaltending also makes a difference, McLellan added. Mike Smith alone can retrieve a lot of dumps and get them out.
The ability to know when to pressure on the kill, and faceoff ability have been two other keys.
We talk about pressure on the penalty kill, McLellan said. There are certain situations where pressure comes into play, and other times its about good positioning.
I wouldnt say were a top faceoff team in the league, but we are able to win some key faceoffs in our own zone, he added.
McLellan also put his foot down early in the season if any of his players took undisciplined penalties, Cavanaugh said. The Aeros have been shorthanded just 213 times the fewest in the league.
Team discipline was a problem for us early in the season, Cavanaugh said. Todd sent a message to guys, both the younger guys and the veteran guys, by benching guys.