Arizona Coyotes are scoring shorthanded goals at a usually unsustainable pace so far this season.
Not long before the Arizona Coyotes hosted the Carolina Hurricanes last Friday, assistant coach Scott Allen gathered the team’s penalty kill and issued a cautious warning. “I love what’s going on, but we’ve got to keep focus,” Allen said, “because there’s no way this is going to continue.”
He was speaking, of course, about the Coyotes’ ridiculous run of scoring shorthanded, which by then already included five goals over their previous three games, best by any NHL club since November 2007. They preach pragmatism down in the desert, an ethos that flows from analytically minded GM John Chayka and permeates the rest of their retooled roster. Even if Allen hadn’t called this brief pregame meeting, everyone realized that regression was inevitable. Simply snuffing out an opponent’s power play, Allen reminded them, would suffice as a realistic aim …
Several hours later, as teammate Brendan Perlini served a hooking minor during the first period at Gila River Arena, defenseman Alex Goligoski pounced on a loose puck in the defensive zone and started an odd-man rush alongside center Brad Richardson. When his initial shot attempt was saved and Carolina grabbed the rebound, Goligoski hustled to coax a turnover that slipped to Richardson, all alone in the slot. After shoveling a backhander past Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek for his third shorthanded goal of the season, Richardson cruised past the Coyotes bench. Standing there, Allen made eye contact, shook his head and laughed.
“You’re like, ‘Oh my god, what’s going on here?’” Richardson says. “Almost in shock. It’s insane.”
None of this is unprecedented. Twenty others had scored at least three shorthanded goals through their respective team’s first 12 games until Richardson cracked this elite club of extra-dangerous killers against Carolina. And the Coyotes became only the fifth team ever with seven or more across that same span--first since St. Louis in ‘93-94. Then again, the NHL’s 101st season isn’t even one month old. Might as well have fun with small sample sizes.
Rick Tocchet is certainly enjoying himself. The head coach and ex-tough guy acts the strong-and-silent part during games, but even he felt an “incredible” energy ripple through the bench when Richardson beat Mrazek. “Everyone was smiling, there was such excitement,” Tocchet says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this doesn’t really happen very often.’ It’s a huge celebration, more than just scoring a five-on-five goal.”
Indeed, there is something uniquely special about shorties. Ask Tocchet. Given that he registered 288 penalty minutes in ‘86-87, his transgressions indirectly helped Philadelphia record 22 shorthanded goals that season, tied for 10th most all-time. “I”ll take credit for some of those,” Tocchet says with a laugh. Now that he helps run the Coyotes’ power play, as he has done for much of his coaching career, Tocchet understands the flipside of ceding a 4-on-5 tally too. “It demoralizes the team,” he says. “The penalty kill adds a lot of psychology to the game.”
Like a 10-man goal on the soccer pitch, scoring shorthanded energizes the understaffed underdogs while simultaneously deflating the favorites. It is common to hear hockey players and coaches discussing nebulous momentum swings from successfully killed penalties. This is way worse. “It’s such a buzzkill for them,” Richardson says. “You’re the one who’s supposed to be scoring.” Good sportsmanship keeps Richardson from peeking at the opposing bench after his shorties, but he can sense the negative vibes. “Everyone’s pissed off,” he says.
For career penalty-killers like Richardson, scenes like these provide endless amusement. Like when the Coyotes’ talented young players grow increasingly frustrated during special teams practice against Richardson and his speedster partner. “Guys don’t know, me and Richie,” says winger Michael Grabner, “we try to go pretty hard. Eventually they figure it out.”
Put together during preseason, Richardson and Grabner have since developed into a lethal one-two punch of shorthanded power. Consider: Entering Monday night’s home date with Philadelphia, they had killed penalties together for almost 30 minutes this season. In that time, according to Natural Stat Trick, the Coyotes had outscored their opponents 5-1. No wonder that members of Arizona’s top power play unit, upon seeing Grabner and Richardson headed their way during practice, recently started asking, “Can you guys go to the other end, please?”
On paper, they make for an amusing match. Richardson, 33, was a fifth-round draft pick from Belleville, Ontario who has spent his entire 14-year career in the Western Conference and once lifted weights at Leonardo Dicaprio’s house. Grabner, 31, was a first-round selection from Villach, Austria who completed the New York City-area NHL team trifecta last season, preys on inexperienced players in the Coyotes’ fantasy football league, and receives ribbing for always walking around without his shirt. “He’s got that look,” Tocchet says. “He’s pretty jacked.”
On the ice, they are cruising. A two-on-one against Anaheim led to a backdoor redirection from Richardson on Oct. 10. A defensive zone takeaway from Grabner tabled Richardson’s second shortie, against Vancouver on Oct. 26. Two days later, Grabner feasted twice against Tampa Bay’s power play in the Coyotes’ 7-1 pasting, then their third straight victory. “For some reason, we just built some chemistry right off the start,” Grabner says.
The basic structure of Allen’s system isn’t wildly different from most teams. It's a copycat league, after all. But a heightened emphasis on jumping loose pucks has been perfect for Grabner and Richardson, both instinctual killers with enough foot speed to reduce the risk of gambling for turnovers. "I don't want them to be robotic," Tocchet says. "They understand that if they do take a shot at it, they're fast enough to get back to protect the house."
Richardson praises Grabner’s ability to lure opponents into a false sense of security and then intercept passes. “He hides his stick from you, you think you’re good, then he strikes,” Richardson says. “We call it the old cobra tongue.” Grabner, whose blazing end-to-end speed rivals few league-wide, thinks back to his first full NHL season in ‘10-11, when he tallied six shorthanded goals and Islanders partner Frans Nielsen notched seven. “It was the same as it felt right now,” Grabner says.
Speaking on separate phone calls Sunday, both Grabner and Richardson were asked to guess the single-season records for shorthanded goals by a team and individual. (Fun with small sample sizes, kids!) Both came relatively close in the latter category: Mario Lemieux, 13, ‘88-89. Then again, neither sniffed the ballpark for team shorties, each guessing 20. The correct answer: the ‘83-84 Edmonton Oilers with a whopping, Wayne Gretzky-led 36.
“Oh, Jesus, okay,” Richardson replies. “I think that one’s safe.”
Probably, but the Coyotes are still headed for impressive territory. Only one team has topped 20 shorthanded goals in the 21st century (‘05-06 Senators, 25). And no individual has scored more than seven since ‘03-04 (Martin St. Louis, eight). As it is, the NHL's top-ranked penalty kill (92.1%) has already played a critical--and equally unlikely--role in keeping Arizona’s offense afloat through its early five-on-five scoring drought. “Yeah, it’s won us a bunch of games,” Tocchet says. “We know it’s going to even out here eventually, but the group believes in themselves right now.”
Indeed, that regression should be arriving any day now. Perhaps goalie Antti Raanta’s .919 penalty kill save percentage will dip. No doubt Richardson will fall way short of reaching 20 shorties, his current record-breaking pace. And it is entirely possible that, by the time you read this very sentence, the Coyotes’ four-game streak will have ended against the Flyers…
“We’ll definitely take it if it continues this way,” Grabner says. “We’ll enjoy it while it lasts. The odds it continues at that pace are slim, but as long as we can keep killing penalties, we’ll take that too.”