EVERETT — If one browses through the Western Hockey League’s statistics, one finds little about the Everett Silvertips that impresses.
Out of the WHL’s 20 teams, Everett is 17th on the power play and dead last in goals. There isn’t a single Silvertips player within rifle’s range of the league leaders in the individual categories.
But then one arrives at a category where the Silvertips suddenly go from being in the WHL’s basement to being in the league’s penthouse: penalty killing. And Everett’s ability to withstand opponents’ power plays is a significant part of why the Silvertips have been competitive so far this season.
"So far the penalty kill is going pretty good," said Mark Kress, who’s seen the most penalty-kill shifts of any Everett forward. "We’re one of the best in the league and I think we’re getting better every game we play."
Going into Tuesday night’s games, Everett was fourth in the WHL in penalty killing, surrendering just five goals in 42 chances for a kill rate of 88.1 percent. The five power-play goals surrendered is the fewest in the league. In Everett’s three wins the Silvertips did not concede a single power-play goal.
"I don’t want to talk about it because it’s going well," quipped Everett assistant coach Jay Varady, who works with the special teams.
"To play defense you don’t really need any gifted skill," Varady added. "It takes work ethic, dedication and having the attitude that we’re going to stop the other team’s best players. So far we’ve done a pretty good job of that."
The easiest way to kill a penalty is to keep the puck as far from the net as possible. To that end, the Silvertip coaches stress clearing the puck the entire length of the ice and following up with a harassing forecheck.
"We just try to have some energy on the forecheck and create a little havoc with our faster guys on the ice," Varady said. "The key thing for us is really making sure that when we do have the opportunity to clear the puck that it goes 200 feet."
Once the puck is in the attacking zone, something of a paradox occurs as the Silvertips take an attacking approach to defending the power play. While killing a penalty, Everett’s players are constantly attacking the puck and sprawling across the ice in an attempt to block any shots.
"You watch the National Hockey League and there’s a lot more sitting back," said defenseman Mitch Love, who along with Bryan Nathe forms Everett’s primary defensive pairing on the penalty kill. "But every team I’ve played on has pressured the puck carrier and made him make decisions with the puck. Any time you do that in this league, you’ve got young guys that play on the back end or up front, and they get a little bit nervous with the puck."
The different positions have slightly different responsibilities on the penalty kill. The two forwards are responsible for applying pressure up top and blocking shots from the point.
"We just try to be on the defensive side of the puck," Kress said. "Then blocking shots is huge. You’ve always got to be in the shooting lane. Any shot on net is a chance for a goal, so you want to be in front of those shots at all times."
The two defenders have to prevent any opposing players from setting up in dangerous positions in front of the net, and again blocking shots is crucial.
"You’ve got to watch guys sneaking in behind you — you’ve always got to have your head on a swivel," Love said. "You’ve got to block a lot of shots, put your body out there on the line."
So far this season, the Silvertips have carried out those duties successfully. That’s a big reason why a team that’s scored just 13 goals in nine games has won three of its last four.
"Any time you have great special teams in the Western Hockey League you’re going to give your team a chance to win every night," Love said. "For us to have a great penalty kill, and with the power play starting to click a little more, we’re starting to put some wins on the board."