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Let’s Give Penalty Killers Their Due

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Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Anybody can do it.

I hear that about penalty-killing a lot, have heard that about top San Jose Sharks PK’ers like Melker Karlsson, Matt Nieto, and Andrew Cogliano, among others, over the years.

But not anybody can do it, as we saw in the Sharks’ 5-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday.

“The first power play goal, our F1 in the neutral zone abandoned the middle of the ice,” San Jose Sharks head coach Bob Boughner admitted of the Oilers strike that tied the game.

When Duncan Keith (2) comes up the ice, Noah Gregor (73) should be there to meet him and force Keith to the dot lane – that’s the outside lanes. Instead, Gregor sits back.

That creates space for Keith to hit Ryan McLeod (71) up the middle, then Kailer Yamamoto (56) catches Sasha Chmelevski (55) flat-footed.

“That’s just a pretty basic rule on our 1-3, our one guy stays in the middle and forces them out to the dot lane and we put pressure on them. Then we stand the line and make them chip or dump,” Boughner explained.

This is how you do it. Earlier on the same PK, look at what F1 Logan Couture (39) – he’s the “1” in the 1-3 neutral zone forecheck – does to force speed merchant Connor McDavid (97) to the outside. He fights through a Leon Draisaitl (29) pick to do so.

Nick Bonino (13) is one of the “3” in the 1-3 – this includes Brent Burns (88) and Jaycob Megna (24). Bonino forces McDavid to dump it in with a well-timed stick.

In the corner, Megna neutralizes McDavid, then Burns goes to work. Burns is much-maligned defensively, but unfairly so – he’s very tough to beat in one-on-one battles and gives Zach Hyman (18) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) all they can handle. Couture finds the loose puck and sends it over to Bonino, who clears.

Of course, the San Jose Sharks lost their captain Couture to an upper-body injury in the second period. Including Cogliano and Jake Middleton, both dealt during the Trade Deadline, those are three regulars of what was a second-ranked penalty kill.

Boughner Hopes Just Day-to-Day for Couture Upper-Body Injury

This late Edmonton power play strike put the game away, giving the Oilers a 4-2 lead.

“When he gets caught over on the seam and it goes over to McDavid, we have to make sure we recover to the middle,” Boughner pointed out. “We’re just a little late doing that in zone.”

Boughner is referring to Hyman’s net front pass to McDavid. At that moment, Rudolfs Balcers (92) needs to be more aware of Draisaitl cruising down the slot. Granted, Balcers is charged with two jobs in one – watching Hyman and Draisaitl – but that’s a penalty killer’s job. You’re down a man, so you can’t always just concentrate on man-to-man defense.

That McDavid pass to Draisaitl can’t be allowed.

“Our penalty kill let him down, to be honest with you,” Boughner said of Kaapo Kahkonen’s San Jose Sharks debut. “We’re using a lot of different faces in our penalty killing.”

San Jose’s big Trade Deadline pick-up stopped 36 of 40 shots.

“Just guys that haven’t played those roles all year,” the bench boss added. “Both goals were just a little bit of inexperience.”

By the way, I’m not trying to bash Gregor, Balcers, and Chmelevski. We’re at that point of the season, let the kids play and learn. They’ll be the better for it next year.

But let’s leave it for 16-year veteran Cogliano to sum it up. This is the first time this year that the vaunted Sharks PK has allowed power play goals in four straight games. The last two have been without Cogliano, traded to Colorado for a fifth-round pick on Monday.

“It’s an undervalued part of the game. The penalty kill is something, when it’s really good, people don’t want to pay attention to it. But when it’s really bad?” Cogliano mused last week, when he was still a Shark. “It ends up losing you games. In the playoffs and in big moments, you need your penalty kill to be good in order to have success.”

Look, I’m not saying that the San Jose Sharks shouldn’t have traded Cogliano or Middleton – an elite penalty kill hasn’t put the Sharks in the playoffs – but let’s give the penalty killers their due.

Not anybody can do it.

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