By Ryan McCracken on October 7, 2016.
By definition, penalties are punishments.
While the thought of a penalty kill will never be appealing, Tigers forward Mark Rassell says the way Medicine Hat has been successfully eating up shorthanded minutes in the offensive zone â€” and even finding the board while down a man in three of their last four games â€”softens the blow of each delayed whistle by providing a chance to flatten the morale of opposing teams.
“You’re definitely the underdog on the kill. Jimmy (Hamblin) and I, when we play together we pride ourselves on playing in the offensive zone, wasting time and frustrating the other team and I know the other units do that as well,” said Rassell, who leads the WHL with two shorthanded goals. “We have a much more aggressive mindset. We work on it in practice and watch a lot more video this season. It’s a mindset of, we’re not going to get scored on.”
After finishing last season ranked second-last in the WHL for penalty killing at 73.9 per cent, Tigers head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston opted to hire former Okotoks Oilers associate coach and assistant general manager Bobby Fox to oversee the unit. While he’s only had five games to put his system into action, Clouston says he can already see a steady improvement.
“There’s definitely an impressive mindset. They’re looking for opportunities to jump on loose pucks,” said Clouston. “If everybody is working hard and trusting each other â€” if you see that guy and you know he’s not going to just chip it he’s going to send it down the ice, guys can take off and look for opportunities.”
Medicine Hat’s penalty killing unit struggled through the opening weekend, allowing four blemishes in two games against the Lethbridge Hurricanes â€” perhaps due to the absence of starting goaltender Nick Schneider. But in the three games that followed, the Tigers have allowed only one power play goal. While their 13-kill streak was snapped in the second period of Wednesday’s 5-4 comeback victory over the Moose Jaw Warriors, even that ultimately unsuccessful effort featured four Tigers in the Moose Jaw end for the better part of 90 seconds.
“I think it’s just a byproduct of the identity we’re trying to have, being aggressive and flooding areas with four guys, not forcing anything out,” said Fox. “It’s not perfect right now but we’re heading in the right direction.”
The Tabbies sit 12th in the WHL’s penalty kill rankings with an 80.8 per cent success rate, but their three shorthanded goals are good for second-best in the league and when the kill is clicking Rassell says it can pay off in the intangibles as well.
“It definitely helps build momentum for us if we can maybe squeak a goal out on the kill or just not let them get any momentum with shots on net when we’re a man short,” said Rassell. “We’ve just got to keep outdoing our streaks, maybe get 14 or 15 straight kills again without giving up a goal.”
The penalty kill isn’t the only special teams unit firing on all cylinders for the Tigers in the early going, as Medicine Hat’s power play unit has connected for a league-leading nine goals with the man advantage while putting together a third-best 40.9 per cent success rate.
While the unit features much of the same cast that posted a 21 per cent effort last season, Tigers forward Chad Butcher â€” who leads the WHL in power play assists alongside linemate Mason Shaw at four â€” says they’ve put a lot more time into revamping their efforts since dropping the puck this season.
“We’ve got a lot more confidence. It’s something we work on a lot more this year and something we planned on working a lot more on. I think it’s paying off so far,” said Butcher. “Any time we get on the man advantage we’re a threat to score. It’s a chance to make something happen.”
The Tigers hit the ice tonight in search of their fifth win in a row against the Red Deer Rebels at the Enmax Centrium. The puck drops at 7 p.m.