By Ryan McCracken on April 20, 2017.
The penalty kill was an area of pride for the Medicine Hat Tigers this season, and much of the unit’s success can be attributed to the aggressive mentality instilled by assistant coach Bobby Fox.
While the Tigers held the league’s second-worst penalty kill last season, Fox quickly changed that by bringing a whole new attitude to the begrudging task of handling an opposing power play.
“You need to have an identity, what you want. For us, we want to be fast and aggressive, take time and space away from teams and pressure when we have the opportunities,” Fox — whose penalty killing unit finished the regular season with an 81.6 per cent rate of success, good enough for sixth in the league — said last week. “You have a game plan against certain team’s tendencies and you find the right personnel, which guys click together.”
Fox had no issue in finding those units. On the back end, pairings like David Quenneville and Ty Schulz, or Clayton Kirichenko and Kristians Rubins, are unafraid to work the puck up ice, join the rush and pin the puck in the offensive zone to chew up valuable seconds. Up front, the twosome of James Hamblin and Mark Rassell has continually proven to be a handful for the opposition — combining for 13 shorthanded points this season — while Chad Butcher and Steven Owre boast some of the strongest chemistry on the roster.
“It just comes with playing with each other every day, in practices and in games,” said Hamblin. “We just know where each other are, we notice little things.”
Fox added the team’s offensive prowess while playing a man short was simply a result of their aggressive mentality. Rather than attempting to rim the puck out along the boards from deep in their own zone, the Tigers relied upon communication and chemistry to work the puck up ice on their own before earning a change — 18 shorthanded goals were the result.
“Sometimes when you try to force the puck out, rim the puck let’s say, it’ll go to their defenceman and that leads to guys being out of position and a scoring chance,” said Fox. “We want to make sure we get out clears — 200 feet preferably — but we want to have poise, especially when we have the puck.”
Hamblin added the approach paid off in more ways than one. While a simple dump-in allows a change of personnel, occupying the offensive zone chews valuable seconds off the penalty clock, while frustrating the opposition and generating opportunities.
“It’s been huge. Just getting pucks to the net takes time away from their power play. As long as they don’t have the puck and we’re taking time away from the power play we’re doing something good,” said Hamblin. “This year I think we focused a lot more on just being aggressive with up ice pressure and not letting them get the zone. Overall we’re just not letting them set up so that helps us.”
Tigers head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston added Fox’s work on the penalty kill was a pivotal factor in the team’s 51-win regular season, while fellow assistant coach Joe Frazer has been equally important in leading the team’s power play. Each brings their own unique set of skills to the table, and Clouston says they combine for a winning team.
“They’ve been a huge part of it. Group dynamics are important and I think we have three very engaged, very competent and very motivated coaches right now,” said Clouston. “There’s a real good balance, there are different personalities and different strength. I think there’s just tremendous synergy. The three of us really enjoy working together.”
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