Playing shorthanded is rarely a recipe for success. Yet for the Steelheads, playing a man down has been one of the strongest aspects of their overall game for the last three years. At 85.8 percent, the Steelheads found their penalty kill listed near the very top of the ECHL rankings in 2016-17, and once again in very familiar territory.
The Steelheads penalty kill has ranked second in each of the past two seasons, and in the top-5 in each of the last three. Their 86.5 percent success rate in 2015-16 was actually slightly better than last year’s mark, but the consistent reliability of Idaho’s PK units have become a staple of Neil Graham-coached teams.
Prior to taking over as the head coach before the 2015-16 season, Graham still shouldered a vast responsibility as an assistant coach for a penalty kill that finished fourth in the league after the 2014-15 season at 86.2 percent. For the coach, the continued success of a vital area of the game plan is in part a credit to the recurring players across each campaign.
“I think a big part of it is the willingness to buy into a system and execute it, but then obviously personnel can play a big part of the success as well. You’re asking guys to sacrifice their bodies and block shots,” said Graham. “We’ve had some key contributors over the last two years especially. I’d argue that Corbin Baldwin easily has the most blocked shots in the entire league over the last two years. Andre Morrissette does a great job getting in lanes up front.”
In addition to the players’ talents, of course, is the structure they play within. ECHL teams, particularly in the West, face a challenge not necessarily faced in other areas of professional hockey. The Steelheads played 53 games against six divisional opponents, and more often than not played the same opponent in three game sets. Like a catcher changing his signs in the middle of a baseball games, the Steelheads would need to make adjustments on the fly to keep one step ahead of the learning curves of the opponent during the week.
“We’ll adjust our special teams from opponent to opponent, and even within a game and within a series against the same team. We’ll adjust our own PK two or three times to make sure we’re not being stagnant, and when they make changes we will as well,” said Graham.
With multiple formations and systems, it’s certainly a lot for any player to digest early in a season, especially when there is so much to learn in October. In the season’s first half, it was the Steelheads’ power play that was earning accolades at the top of the ECHL rankings, while on New Year’s Day the penalty kill was 19th in the league. That obviously changed dramatically in the season’s second half.
“Even when you look at our first year, I still believe that as the season progressed our PK climbed, although not the same kind of jump we saw this year,” said Graham. “But we do like to keep adjusting throughout the year, and with that there are potentially more curve balls and mixing it up early in the year. If one guy is off by a second or misses a read, now it opens a hole and creates a chance. As the season goes on and the guys get comfortable with the maybe five or six looks that we have. By midyear on, it doesn’t seem like we made a big adjustment.”
It was near that midpoint of the season when the Steelheads penalty kill surged with its best stretch of the season. In 13 games between January 11th and February 8th, the Steelheads penalty kill had a success rate of 87.5 percent and scored six shorthanded goals, and four in the final five games of that stretch.
“It wasn’t a stretch where we were trying to cheat on plays to create offense or we had some light-bulb moment. We had buckled down so tight on the defensive side of the puck that we were forcing teams into bad decisions and then transitioning off their errors,” said Graham.
“I was surprised we didn’t have more throughout the year because we had a plethora of shorthanded chances and breakaways.”
Graham credits the success of the special teams to a small-picture mentality. The Steelheads want to be at the top of special teams rankings by season’s end, but thinking in terms of a 72-games picture from the start of October leaves a lot of room for distraction.
“We go over our special teams in meetings every eight games, and we look at the numbers and how they rank in the league compared to the previous eight,” said Graham, who also uses those eight game segments to judge the team’s overall performance. “We look at our goal for the next eight games, and it gives you something to fight for.”
On many teams, those meetings may not include some of the team’s leading scorers, but the Steelheads had the benefit of seeing many of their top point-producers also serve as their most reliable defensive players. Jefferson Dahl, Rob Linsmayer, Joe Faust, and other offensive forces also saw significant penalty kill time, another significant factor in keeping everyone involved throughout the game.
“It hasn’t always been that way over the last two seasons, but as the year evolves and you see guys get chances in different areas, we’ve had some of our leading scorers on the penalty kill. I think it helps keep them engaged, especially in moments where there are two or three penalty kills in a row in a ten or 12 minute span,” said Graham. “You don’t want your top guys on the bench not having opportunities to have their presence felt. It’s important to engage those guys but also to reward the guys executing the penalty kill the right way.”
When both special teams units are going strong for the majority of the season, it can be the difference between a playoff spot and an early summer. But again, on more of a ‘small picture’ scale, it will also build and strengthen the comradery on the bench, knowing the every player in his role is pulling his weight.
“The cool thing that we’ve seen develop over the last two years is that if we do get a kill, it’s usually our power play guys who are the first ones high-fiving those guys on the way off the ice,” said Graham. “When the power play scores a goal, it’s the PK guys who are fired up. You can see guys with established roles are excited for each other, because you need both to succeed if you’re going to win a lot of hockey games.”