Aggression: It has been the watchword of the John Tortorella era in Vancouver and it is the driving force behind the Canucks penalty kill, ranked No. 1 in the NHL.
Vancouver's penalty kill has been successful the past 22 consecutive times the team has been a man down, yielding an average of just 1.3 shots per penalty and giving up zero goals in seven games.
The penalty kill has been strong for several seasons, but new systems under head coach Tortorella and assistant Mike Sullivan have added to the punch. The Canucks, like all teams, are not eager to detail their precise systems. But players say there is more push on the fore-check , in the opponents' end and as they bring the puck up the ice – as well as against the points when Vancouver is defending in its zone.
"It's more aggressive," said Ryan Kesler, Vancouver's top penalty killing forward. "It's a willingness to do whatever it takes to kill the penalty. It's about will."
The work was on display a week ago in San Jose – where the Sharks had not lost on home ice. The teams were tied 2-2, with seven minutes left in the first period, when San Jose went on the power play. After the faceoff, the Canucks went to their main system, one that is called "wedge + 1" by some hockey people.
The system is considered aggressive and the wedge is a triangle of three players, near the net, with one rover attacking. As the puck moves, the rover retreats to the wedge, and a new rover attacks.
The Canucks killed that two-minute penalty.
The next time the Sharks went on the power play, midway through the second, the Canucks were up 4-2. This time, the fore-check was on display, what some call a "T fore-check." It is designed to slow opponents' advance and involves two forwards, one in front and one trailing, on the attack.
In this case, Kesler led the charge, with Chris Higgins behind, and Kesler's pestering stymied the Sharks players in their zone. There were a smattering of boos and grumbles from the San Jose crowd and the Sharks couldn't manage a single shot on the Canucks in the two minutes.
Aggression has been key, Tortorella said, and it is backstopped by the solid play of goalie Roberto Luongo.
"If you let good players play, and let them have the ice, eventually, they're going to pick you apart," Tortorella said after practice Wednesday in Vancouver. The Canucks play host to San Jose at Rogers Arena on Thursday.
Vancouver has achieved success with a new look in terms of personnel. Defenceman Chris Tanev leads the team in short-handed ice time, a spot held by Dan Hamhuis last year. And with forwards Jannik Hansen and Alex Burrows injured for portions of this season, new additions Brad Richardson and Mike Santorelli have put in the second- and third-most time among forwards, respectively, after Kesler.
The addition of new faces has been smooth, long-time penalty killer Kevin Bieksa said.
"The important thing on the penalty kill, when you have four guys out there, you have to be on the same page, and you have to know each other's responsibilities, not only your own but everybody else's responsibilities, in case there's a breakdown."
The last notable change from previous seasons is adjustments made for particular opponents. All teams deploy variations of penalty kills depending on the team and the situation – other formations such as the "diamond" or the "box" are used by the Canucks – but Tanev noted the new coaching staff puts a particular focus on who might be dangerous. Richardson pointed to the Washington Capitals in late October, as an example, when the Canucks kept a focused eye on Alex Ovechkin and were somewhat less aggressive, to minimize miscues. Washington had four power plays, didn't score, and lost 3-2.
"We do," Richardson said Wednesday, "tweak subtle things."