Penalty Killing is the key
It's not going to be easy down the stretch for the Ottawa Senators, but if they are going to keep their names in the discussion down the stretch, the penalty killing will need to continue to be exceptional.
Through 17 games this season the Sens have been one of the top shorthanded units in hockey. They have been a man down 65 times and killed those penalties successfully 59 times for a 90.8 per cent efficiency rate, good for second in the NHL behind the Boston Bruins and their 94.1 per cent penalty kill rate.
The successful penalty kill has been a big reason why the Sens have been able to get away with such a low scoring output. They rank 25th in the NHL in goals for at 2.29 goals per game. Conversely, the Sens have been the most stingy team in the league on the back end, allowing just 1.82 goals per game.
Obviously a big part of the disparity between goals for and goals against has to do with the stellar goaltending the Sens have received. Craig Anderson has been (arguably) the best goaltender in the NHL this season. Similarly, after a shaky start to the season, Ben Bishop has rebounded nicely, allowing just two goals in his last two starts.
The old adage in hockey says that a goaltender must be your best penalty killer and the Sens have received that backstopping to this point in the season.
After last night's win over the Islanders, Head Coach Paul MacLean was quick to praise the work of his penalty killers. It was easy to see why. They held the Islanders to an 0-for-4 mark with the man advantage and had the likes of John Tavares and Matt Moulson visibly frustrated. The work of Erik Condra, Zack Smith, and others up front put the Islanders point men on their back heels, while the defensive unit as a whole cleared the space around Anderson effectively.
It was a textbook performance.
Whether or not this efficiency is sustainable is another issue in and of itself. Over the last five seasons, the Sens have never killed penalties at less than an 81 per cent rate which stacks up favourably against the NHL. Even if we drop this year's rate to the worst it has been in that span, the team only allows six more goals this season and slides to sixth in the NHL in goals against from first.
Still perfectly respectable.
The fact is penalty killing has never been a more valuable commodity. With a shortened season and teams constantly running hot and cold, there has never been more of a premium on scoring with the man advantage. Approximately 27 per cent of goals scored in the NHL this season have come on the power play.
While the Sens will obviously need to continue putting a big emphasis on crashing the net on the offensive end to manufacture offence and, ultimately, win games, the real key to how the 2013 season ends will lie in its ability to kill off the man advantage.
Murphy's Law dictates that Anderson and Bishop will eventually have nights where they won't be as sharp as they have been. Last night made it clear that goals will come and go. The power play will eventually round into form and give the Sens an offensive boost. Fans can take solace that the team's play has been of quality all season long, it's simply been a matter of the ends not always following the means.
Consistency in all facets of the game is of the utmost importance. But, as long as the team can continue to find a way to kill of eight or nine of every 10 penalties, they will continue to be in the thick of things.