It was about a year and two weeks ago that the Bruins’ penalty kill was down with the dregs of the NHL and general manager Peter Chiarelli swung a deal with Buffalo for Daniel Paille in an attempt to turn things around.
The result after Paille arrived in Boston and head coach Claude Julien determined which six players would be his primary shorthanded players was a penalty kill that was near or at the top of the league from December until it finished the regular season ranked third.
Boston’s penalty kill has come so far since last fall that nine games into the 2010-11 season, it doesn’t even need Paille – a perennial healthy scratch – to be the NHL’s best.
The Bruins’ penalty kill not only killed off six of seven Buffalo power plays in a 5-2 win tonight, but also scored two shorthanded goals to down the host Sabres at HSBC Arena.
Entering this season, there were some valid concerns about whether the Bruins’ penalty kill could maintain its high-caliber play of a year ago. Assistant coach Craig Ramsay, a penalty-killing Yoda of sorts, left to become head coach in Atlanta. Center Steve Begin was allowed to walk and replaced by Gregory Campbell, who had his share of injury problems last season. And Marco Sturm and Marc Savard were already out of the picture due to injury, and both are still out indefinitely.
Well, as it has turned out, the Bruins’ penalty kill has allowed Julien and his staff to hum “Hakuna Matata” every time the team takes a penalty. Entering their game in Buffalo, the Bruins had killed 27 of 29 opponent power plays, and they had killed off 15 straight before Drew Stafford cashed in from in tight with 3:21 remaining in the second period.
Obviously, when you’re goaltender is off to the best start in NHL history – Tim Thomas has now allowed just five goals in his 7-0-0 start and ran his shutout streak to 167:12 – you’re going to kill off a huge amount of penalties. But you can’t down play the nightly effort Patrice Bergeron, Blake Wheeler, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Jordan Caron and Campbell (not to mention the defensemen) have done in front of Thomas.
Adhering to the Bruins’ rules about body and stick position, and using their speed to attack puck-carriers and rush the puck down the throats of the opposing power-play units, the Bruins’ PK bunch has been as dangerous with the puck as it has been impenetrable in its own zone. Marchand, on a breakaway after a Buffalo offensive-zone breakdown, and Bergeron, with a yeoman’s effort on a second chance after a shot block, registered Boston’s first two shorthanded goals of the season on consecutive kills. It was a performance reminiscent of Boston’s historic showing against Carolina last spring, when the Bruins scored three times in one Hurricanes power play.
It was the wise, veteran Patriot Ledger reporter Mike Loftus who during Tuesday’s media availability asked several players and Julien about having offensive-minded players killing penalties because they know how to muck up a power play. While that has obviously worked in the Bruins’ favor, the club has also benefited from the scoring ability of its kill-squad players.
Campbell has more offensive upside than any Bruins fourth-line center since the lockout, and Marchand has shown the same ability to create offense (although he has only cashed in once) that made him a 67- and 51-point producer in the AHL. The penalty kill certainly has not missed Savard or Sturm or Begin or Ramsay.
In NHL awards terms, if Thomas is the Bruins’ first star of their record-breaking start (five straight road wins from the outset sets a new mark), then the penalty kill could very well be the second star. Recchi keeps talking about being a team that’s tough to play against. Well, teams now know the Bruins can kill with the best of them.