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How Has the Hurricanes’ Penalty Kill Been So Dominant?

After surviving 27 straight shorthanded situations, Carolina has skyrocketed to the top of the league in PK percentage.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

After giving up their first PP goal in 27 man-down situations last night, the Carolina Hurricanes still maintained a percentage of 91.1% of penalties killed. For reference, the second place St. Louis Blues currently sit at 88.4%, the Edmonton Oilers are in third with 87.7% killed, and the league average is 82.3%.

So it’s safe to say that Carolina’s penalty killing has been extremely impressive through the first quarter of the season, but what have they done so well to stifle their opponents’ power play tactics?

The number one penalty killer on any team is the goaltender, and this Hurricanes group is no different. Cam Ward has made some crucial saves to help kill off numerous penalties, and his numbers prove it.

Since the Canes last gave up a power play goal on October 30 to Shayne Gostisbehere of the Philadelphia Flyers (prior to Jonathan Marchessault’s goal last night), Ward has posted a .940 save percentage in 11 games, and given up more than two goals just once in a game. His consistency in all situations (5v5, PK, PP) over the month of November has been a key component to the success of the penalty kill, and the team as a whole.

Beyond the numbers, Ward has been reliable when most needed on the PK. He has, on multiple occasions, made game-changing/saving stops to re-energize his team and keep them either winning the game, or at the very least, competitive. Without Ward, the PK is nowhere near as successful as it has been.

In terms of tactics, however, Carolina plays a surprisingly aggressive style. Their defensive zone play focuses on revoking time and space from opposing players. This means that when a player on the wall has the puck, someone is in his face. When a defenseman is walking the blue line looking for a lane to shoot or pass, someone is in his face.

But playing like this is a double-edged sword. Last night, the Hurricanes’ aggressive style opened up the middle of the ice for some slick passing by the Panthers to break the Canes’ streak.

Jordan Staal remained too high after aggressively checking Keith Yandle, which allowed for an easy pass to Aleksander Barkov and a rebound goal from Jonathan Marchessault. It seemed like Florida had watched some tape on the Canes’ PK and knew that quick passing around the perimeter could open up the middle of the ice.

Still, the aggressive style employed by Carolina thus far has served them well, as last night’s goal was an outlier. If Jordan Staal returns to his position at the top of the tight box formation usually run by the PK, the pass never gets to Barkov. And Staal, being one of Carolina’s best penalty killers, probably knew immediately that he was out of place being so high in the zone. Suffice it to say, Carolina’s defensive zone tactics are still strong when it comes to killing penalties.

However, the most fascinating aspect of the Hurricanes’ PK is their neutral zone setup. Take a look at this still frame from Viktor Stalberg’s shorthanded goal against Toronto last week.

Stalberg is the man in the center dot, and his job is basically to force the puck carrier, who is Tyler Bozak, in this case, to one side of the ice or the other, so the supporting penalty killers behind him can close off that side of the ice.

This angling technique is almost psychological—it allows the carrier to believe he is getting past the first wave of killers when in reality, he is quickly running out of options. His open ice runs out as soon as he crosses center ice, as the remaining defenders will step up on him almost immediately, and he is left with two options: either dump the puck, or continue trying to skate through and hope one of his teammates can support him as a passing option.

But even those aren’t surefire options, as this pass was intercepted by Elias Lindholm and forwarded to Stalberg, who scored to put the Canes ahead for good. Running such a stifling system before the opponent even enters your zone is a bold strategy for Bill Peters and his associates, but when Carolina is disciplined and remains strong at their own blue line, the other team never stands a chance.

Without a doubt, the Carolina penalty kill has been the team’s strongest asset to this point. And while their attacking style of defense can leave them susceptible to good passing from a team with strong chemistry and awareness, the fact remains that taking away an opponent’s time and space with the puck is the greatest way to prevent them from doing what they want to.