New Jersey Devils Penalty Killers Are More Than Just On a Hot Streak

While the 2011 NHL trade deadline heats up, the New Jersey Devils have been blazing for over a month and a half now.  Since Jamie Langenbrunner was traded, the team has picking up wins like they were potato chips at a party.  Their record since the trade: a brilliant 16-2-1.  Right now, the Devils have won their last 8 games and haven't lost in regulation this month.  It is indeed, a wild ride.

One of the areas of the team where the team has been particularly successful has been on the penalty kill.  Mention special teams to a Devils fan and you'll probably get a lament about how the power play has been anything but hot for the last two months.  However, the PK deserves their due.  Not just because they have been on a streak of their own as of late, but they've been quite good throughout this season.  Please continue after the jump to learn how impressive the killers have been.

The Current Streak

While the Devils have won their last 8, the penalty killing units have been perfect in the last 6 games.  Since allowing two power play goals to Carolina on February 8, they have killed 18 shorthanded situations in a row. That's impressive all by itself.

Though, an average of 3 shorthanded situations per game does not seem to be really praise-worthy, it is considering the best team in the league at avoiding shorthanded situations averages 3.25 per game (thanks to triumph44 for pointing this fact out; hence, the changes here). Nevertheless, the best penalty kill is to not go shorthanded in the first place. However, when a Devil has made an error or got suckered into a call, the PK units and the goaltender came to save the day.

And I do mean the PK units.  While Johan Hedberg's performances between the pipes is as hot as an inferno as of late, which has been important, the skaters in front of him have done a good job in limiting shots.  Here's a quick breakdown of the last 6 games from the NHL's own game and event summaries:

 

Game PK Times PK Time PK SA
2/10 at Toronto 5 8:22 5
2/11 vs San Jose 2 2:25 0
2/16 vs Carolina 2 2:40 4
2/18 vs Rangers 2 4:00 0
2/19 at Carolina 3 6:00 5
2/22 at Dallas 4 8:00 1

 

He only faced a large number of shots on the PK once in this streak - against Carolina, who needed to throw everything (and the kitchen sink forward) to get back into a 3-0 game.   In the other five games, the opposition has been held to less than a shot per minute of power play time. This meant the penalty killers pressured their opponents enough to take poor shots (or none at all). In three of these six games (2/10, 2/11 and 2/16), the Devils' penalty killers actually drew a minor to prematurely end an opposition's power play. They got the puck and forced the opponents to make a mistake.  More of all, in two of these six games, Moose didn't even have to make any saves. The only way the Devils could have done better is to not have taken a penalty at all. To me, that speaks to how well they've been performing on that end of special teams.

There is a big caveat here, though.  Only one of these five opponents has a top power play in the league: San Jose. The Sharks are third in the league in power play conversion rate (22.8%) and wildly successful at generating shots on net at 5-on-4 (73.5 SF/60 per Behind the Net).  The other four opponents range from good but not great this season (Dallas - 18.4%, 12th place) to high penalty-drawing teams (Carolina converts 16.9%, 20th place, leads league with 255 power play opportunities) to the not so good (Rangers - 16.3%, 24th place; Toronto - 16.0%, 25th place).  The Devils aren't exactly shutting down the elite power play teams on the regular.  Throw in the fact that Moose has been ridiculous in his own right and it could just mean the penalty killers have been enjoying a hot streak of their own. 

Perhaps they are.  However, their performance throughout this entire season reinforces the idea that New Jersey has been just plain good on the PK.

The Penalty Kill This Season

While the Devils have been perfect at killing penalties in their last 6 games, this is not the first streak of sorts. Just the longest so far. They did have two separate streaks of 5 games without conceding a power play goal against earlier this season.  The first was from December 4 through December 15 (19 shorthanded situations killed) and the second was from January 17 through January 26 (11 shorthanded situations killed). That's right, the Devils penalty kill did not suddenly become good just recently.

Behind the Net tabulates team-by-team data for various situations throughout the season. The Devils look quite good in 4-on-5 situations.  First, the Devils have allowed only 28 goals when down a man.  Only two teams in the league as of this writing have been stingier: Nashville (27) and Florida (21).  Second, when down a man, the rate of shooting against the Devils has only been 42.8 shots against per 60 minutes. That's the second best rate in the league; only Philadelphia can boast a better rate at 42.3.   The Devils' goaltenders haven't allowed much at 4-on-5 and the penalty killers have limited their opposition from shooting all season long.

As a result, it should be no surprise that the Devils' penalty kill success rate of 83.9% is in the top-ten in the NHL.  If anything, one could argue the Devils are much better on the PK than that success rate would indicate. 

The only area where one could say they've been vulnerable is 3-on-5 situations, where they have allowed 4 goals.  Even there, their shots against per 60 rate is 82.0, the tenth lowest in the NHL according to Behind the Net.  I would not be concerned about those situations, though.  In general, a 3-on-5 situation is tough enough for any team and it's not uncommon to see a goal scored on it.  Only one team hasn't allowed any goals in that situation, and no one's pointing to Edmonton as an example of good penalty killing.  3-on-5 situations are not really indicative of who is and is not a strong penalty killing team like the (much) more common 4-on-5 situations.

Though, even 4-on-5 situations aren't all that common with the Devils. Going back to the idea of the best penalty kill is good discipline; the Devils have only been shorthanded 199 times this season. That's relatively low compared to the rest of the league. Only two teams have been in fewer situations as of this writing: Chicago (197) and Boston (195).  In addition to not getting shorthanded a lot, the Devils have been in the upper echelon of teams killing them when they do.   

Who Deserves the Credit?

Take a gander at the shorthanded time on ice per game and you'll see who's been doing most of the lifting on the penalty kill.  Unsurprisingly, the top three are defensemen.

Colin White leads the team with an even 3 minutes average per game this season. The defensive defenseman is usually the team's first choice on a kill, and it's a no-brainer given his positioning skills and experience. The team leader in overall ice time per game, Henrik Tallinder, is only a little more than a minute behind in total shorthanded ice time, and he has logged a heavy 2:44/game as well. Andy Greene is also a big regular with an average of 2:40/game on the PK. These three are the most common defenseman, with Anton Volchenkov - a strong defensive defenseman in his own right - joining in when available.   While the Devils may lack a two-way defenseman from the blueline, they have one loaded core for primarily defensive situations.

In terms of forwards, the group is led by Patrik Elias (2:26/game) and Travis Zajac (2:15/game). As if you need another reason to love Elias, he truly is a two-way winger. He knows where to stand in the passing lane, he's experienced enough to know when to just dump it out or carry the puck on a shorthanded chance, and he's swift enough to make the right moves.  Zajac is the team's top faceoff taker (958 attempts) and their most prolific winner (540 wins, 56.4%). Winning a draw is important to get that early possession (and hopefully followed by an early clear), and Zajac's own defensive awareness makes him a fine killer of penalties. 

Both are used early and often on a kill to support White, Greene, Tallinder, and Volchenkov. In my view, they deserve the most credit for a PK unit that has been quite good all season and especially good in the last two weeks.

After Elias and Zajac, the most common forwards start coming from other parts of the lineup.  Brian Rolston is third among current forwards with a 1:42/game average and he's been playing on both special teams for much of his career.  Rod Pelley is just behind him with an average of 1:41/game, where he shows that he's more than just a fourth line guy. That he's a fourth line guy who can spell the top forwards on the PK and come out well.  In recent games, Vladimir Zharkov has received about a minute here and there of PK time, which is impressive given his limited minutes at even strength.  They have provided enough support to spell the top guys up front, keeping the units successful for the most part.

Also, the coaching staff deserves credit as well. I'm not certain who exactly has been masterminding the PK from the bench.  Since it's been good all season long, it's not right to just point the finger at Jacques Lemaire and say, "This is one more reason he's the man."   I don't know if assistant head coach Adam Oates (as I understand it, he has a hand in the power play, perhaps he handles the other special team) or Larry Robinson (as I understand it, defense is his main area of responsibility) has been in command of the penalty kill.  However, for all I know, it could be a collaborative effort and so everyone gets some praise for a strong penalty kill.

Conclusion

That the PK work should get some love at all really the most important point.  Even through the first half of the season, under John MacLean as head coach, the penalty kill was performing well.  Sure, it's one only one part of the game and ideally it's one part that we'd rather not see too much of in a game.  Nevertheless, being so sharp at 4-on-5 is advantage and it's something that we could reasonably count on when the hotness (be it this current streak by the PK, Hedberg, or the team as a whole) ends.

Have you been impressed by the PK this season? Did you expect a top-10 PK unit going into this season, or is this more of a pleasant surprise in your eyes?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils' penalty killers in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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