High Risk, Higher Reward
BC Penalty Kill Perfect in Hockey East Championship
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
BOSTON Maine winger Matt Mangene stood behind his own net. Looking at a 200-foot sheet in front of him, Mangene quickly processed what he saw and headed up ice.
At this point, the Black Bears trailed Boston College, 2-1, in the 2012 Hockey East championship game. Maine center Brian Flynn halved the deficit about six minutes prior. A Tommy Cross interference minor sent the Black Bears to the power play. Typically, a Black Bear power play means scoring chances. It means pressure on the defense, and it means a goal 27.6 percent of the time.
With this in mind, Mangene skated up ice looking to gain the blue line against the Eagles. Against most, the pressure ends once the puck crosses the blue line. Playing a passive box formation suits plenty of clubs just fine, as they rely on miscues and their goaltender to survive the two minutes down a man. When the opponent is BC, though, the paradigm shifts a little. The pressure comes the second the power play begins, and it doesn't stop until it's over.
"It's just 'go,'" BC center Pat Mullane said after Saturday's 4-1 win in the league's title game. "A lot of teams are passive. Power play guys hate to have guys coming at them. It's frustrating, and it's nerve racking. So it's our philosophy as penalty killers to go at teams."
The BC coaching staff ingrains this idea into its penalty-killers' heads the second they arrive on campus. The Eagles roll three penalty-killing units at the moment. Mullane pairs with Chris Kreider. Senior Barry Almeida skates with junior Steve Whitney, and sophomore Bill Arnold plays with senior Paul Carey. Each unit focuses on the same principle of applying pressure to the puck carrier throughout the man advantage.
Starting with the breakout, the BC penalty killers maintain aggression throughout, forcing their opponents to make decisions. The nature of a power play makes it difficult to defend, as teams look to use their advantage to create open looks and scoring chances. As a result, most clubs are instructed to be patient down a man. Playing with caution helps avoid mistakes, but it also forfeits control of the play. It forces a team to play at its opponent's speed.
"Our entire game is set up around playing up-tempo, and making other teams uncomfortable," Kreider said. "I think that's really evident in the way we kill penalties. When we're doing a poor job killing penalties, we're not skating, we're not making teams play at a level they're uncomfortable at. So, starting with their breakout, we're trying to make them move the puck to a place where they don't want to move the puck."
Without leading-scorer Spencer Abbott Saturday night, Maine stood at a decided disadvantage, even with Mangene, Joey Diamond and Brian Flynn, among others, skating for its top power play unit.
"They pressure pretty hard, so it's tough to get yourself to not over pass and just throw it to the net," Flynn said. "You just have to try and throw pucks to the net and get traffic in and score some ugly rebound goals."
The presence of the Black Bears' prolific scorers changed little for the Eagles. Whether it was Mullane and Kreider or Almeida and Whitney, the Eagles adhered to the philosophy of associate head coach Mike Cavanaugh, who's charged with managing the BC penalty kill.
"We're going to make guys like Flynn and Diamond uncomfortable when they have the puck," Mullane said.
As it has so frequently during BC's current 15-game winning streak, the aggressive penalty killing helped the Eagles complete their quest for a third consecutive Lamoriello Trophy. All five Maine power plays passed without a goal, while BC held its opponents to eight shots on those chances.
In these last 15 games, BC has killed 49 of 55 opposition power plays, an 89.1 percent clip. On the year, BC ranks first in Hockey East and third nationally at 87.5 percent. Since the 2008-09 season, BC hasn't finished a year at worse than 84.3 percent on the penalty kill.
The aggressive system has certainly hurt the Eagles in the past. Darting out to force premature puck movement occasionally leaves defensemen and goaltenders unfavorable matchups. Still, the Eagles approach their penalty kill in the same manner.
"It's a lot of risk, but there's a lot of technique to it," Mullane said. "We understand what we're doing. We rarely get out of position. Sometimes, it looks like we're scrambling, but we're in position, and we trust in Parker Milner to bail us out when we do get caught. It happened a few times (Saturday), and it's going to happen. Flynn, Abbott, Diamond are so talented, that they're going to get chances. That's when we're going to rely on Milner, and he's been great for us."
Killing nearly 90 percent of penalties is proof enough of the Eagles' success. However, the 11 shorthanded goals the Eagles have scored this season offers additional credence to its effectiveness. The consistent, perfectly timed attacks on puck carriers create frequent turnovers at the blue line, which BC penalty killers often turn into goals.
The six players making up BC's top three units are among the league's most talented. There is more to them, though. The focus on winning bred by York, Cavanaugh and the rest of the Eagle coaching staff nurtures commitment in these players. As a result, Kreider, Arnold and other BC forwards with high-end skill don't hesitate to block shots or battle for loose pucks.
"We all have speed, but there's another common attribute — tenacity," Kreider said. "You don't see guys standing up straight. You don't see guys taking a second off. We're only out there for 20 or 25 seconds at a time on a kill, maybe less than that. It's guys that are very in tune with what's going on, and where everyone is on the ice."
Heading into the NCAA tournament, where BC will likely be the No. 1 seed in the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass., next Saturday, the competition will grow tougher as the Eagles advance. New opponents with different skill sets mean new challenges and adjustments BC will have to make to compete for a national championship.
"We'll change certain things depending on what kind of power play we're going up against, whether or not they've got a certain player who likes to do certain things," Kreider said. "I think any team will do that, but there are definitely things we like to stick to."
After a perfect five for five on the penalty kill Saturday night and a third straight Hockey East championship, it's really not hard to see why.