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The Oilers Penalty Kill is Killing Penalties Again

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Edmonton Oilers Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

One area that the Oilers have struggled with this season is their penalty kill. In the first few months of the 2016/17 season, things were looking great, as the club ranked in the top five when it came to goals against per hour. But looking deeper into the numbers, their success early on did not appear to be sustainable as they allowed one of the highest rate of unblocked shots against per hour and were basically being bailed out by stellar play from Cam Talbot.

Over December and January, the rate of shots remained high and the goaltending began to regress, sinking the OIlers penalty kill down the overall rankings. By the end of February, the team sat 19th in the league in terms of goals against per hour, brutal considering they ranked as high as third in the first few months. But it was somewhat expected as they allowed the 10th highest rate of unblocked shots against by that point.

It appears however, that the Oilers penalty kill is coming back to life.

Outstanding efficiency in those past 10 games, and it appears the goals against per hour heading into Thursday night’s game against San Jose was the second best in the league. What’s especially encouraging is the fact that their recent success was legitimate in March, and didn’t rely solely on Talbot, as the rate of unblocked shot attempts against also improved.

What I’ve done below is break out the Oilers penalty kill performance by month this season, and included how they rank overall in the league. I’ve included the actual goals against per hour, along with the unblocked shot attempts against (Fenwick), and the team save percentage. And just for fun, I’ve included the team’s faceoff percentage each month, only because there was a lot of chatter about faceoffs being a reason why the Oilers penalty kill was struggling.

Month Games TOI Goals Against/60 Fenwick Against/60 Save% Faceoff %
October 9 54.40 3.31 (5th) 77.21 (28th) 94.12 (4th) 36.92 (29th)
November 14 74.61 4.02 (7th) 65.14 (11th) 90.74 (7th) 43.24 (21st)
December 14 76.52 7.06 (22nd) 62.73 (12th) 85.00 (22nd) 46.15 (12th)
January 14 65.78 5.47 (16th) 71.15 (20th) 89.83 (8th) 46.58 (13th)
February 12 45.73 13.12 (30th) 78.72 (26th) 76.19 (29th) 36.96 (30th)
March 11 43.98 2.73 (1st) 54.57 (7th) 92.00 (3rd) 35.71 (29th)
TOTAL 74 361.02 5.82 (16th) 67.97 (17th) 87.97 (13th) 42.74 (24th)

Heading into Thursday’s game, the Oilers rank 16th in the league when it comes to goals against, and 17th when it comes the rate of unblocked shots. And goaltending is slightly above league average now. This jump in the league rankings is thanks in large part to an outstanding March, where the club’s rate of unblocked shots against was one of the best in the league, and a big drop from where they were earlier in the season. Their 2.73 goals against per hour was the best in the league, and a part of that be attributed to Talbot’s play as his numbers bounced back from a poor month of February. Worth noting that Talbot’s performance on the penalty kill has historically been pretty solid, as he held a 90.52% save percentage over his 113 NHL games prior to this season. The 92.0% team save percentage in March isn’t likely to stay at that level, but the team could withstand a slight drop-off in Talbot’s play as the shot rates against are way down.

Also worth noting that the Oilers continue to struggle when it comes to faceoffs when shorthanded, yet it didn’t exactly matter in March as they limited the rate of shots against and got strong goaltending. Faceoffs do matter, but not to the extent that some might think.

As noted above, Benoit Pouliot has been playing well since his return to the lineup, and has seen more time on the penalty kill. He’s in one of the toughest seasons of his career, posting abysmal numbers at even-strength, but he does appear to be turning things around. Among the forwards who have played at least 25 minutes on the penalty kill this season, he has the best on-ice Fenwick Against per hour, relative to the team average. When he’s on the ice, the rate of shot attempts against drops by 11.8 shots against per hour compared to the team’s average, indicating his positive influence. Last season, he was rarely used on the penalty kill, only playing 23 minutes, but even in his limited appearances, the shots against dropped considerably relative to the team average (-16.01). And in 2014/15, the unblocked shots against dropped by 10.9 when he was on the ice.

Pouliot is clearly an effective player shorthanded, so we should expect to see the coaching staff roll him out regularly. The other player worth watching for is Zack Kassian, who has played 76 minutes on the penalty kill this season, and also has an on-ice Fenwick against per hour below the team average (-4.44). Both he and Pouliot have seen more ice time recently, at the expense of Matt Hendricks, who has been in and out of the lineup.

Whatever the Oilers are doing in terms of deployment and tactics on the penalty kill, the results have been there and appear to be sustainable for the most part. All positive signs heading into the post-season when special teams becomes even more critical.

Data: Corsica Hockey, Hockey Analysis