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The Flames are scoring shorthanded goals at an alarming rate

Let’s find out how that is, shall we?

Heather Barry / SB Nation

We did it, folks! We’ve made it to the break, and because we here at Matchsticks and Gasoline are dedicated to our craft and love you a whole bunch, we’re here to deliver you some sweet, sweet bye-week content. And we’re going to be talking about what’s almost certainly everybody’s favorite hockey game happening: killing penalties.

Okay, okay, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. Maybe watching your team kill penalties isn’t so much a joy as it is an “eyes glued to the screen, chewing nails, riddled with anxiety” type of experience, but it’s still worth talking about. Because, despite what’s become our instinctive response, the Flames are doing some compelling things on the PK so far this season. Let’s start by digging into some of their advanced metrics.

Penalty Kill Advanced Stats

Stat Season total Ranking in League
Stat Season total Ranking in League
PK% 79.00% 21st
TSH 162 8th
CA 367 23rd
CF% 16.78% 8th
SA 190 24th
GA 34 10th
GF 15 1st

So, to recap, through this first little over half of the season, we’ve seen a penalty kill that’s given up goals at a slightly above league median rate, but which has also been suppressing shots at an above average rate, culminating in a penalty kill that’s been hanging out at around the middle of the pack for most of the season. So, they’ve been…just about average. Good talk.

Now, wait just one minute. There’s one more thing. I’d like to draw your attention to that last row. Rub your eyes, wipe off your glasses, you still read that right: the Flames are first in the league in shorthanded goals scored. And this leaves us with a question—how has a team that has otherwise been rolling with what has by and large been an average penalty kill been so prolific in generating shorthanded goals? I’m glad you asked, as that’s just what we’re here to find out. Strap in, folks, we’re going for a deep dive.

Let’s back up a second, though. It’s not news to say that strong underlying play tends to lead to goals, that is, more and better shots generated tend to equal more goals. That’s implicit, and also means that it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the Flames rank second in the league in adjusted expected goals for while on the penalty kill, with 18.6. They’re also tied for first in the league in scoring chances for while on the penalty kill, with 42 on the season. But the three teams tied with them—Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Arizona—haven’t been able to find the same level of success in actually converting on those chances created, sitting at six, five, and 12 shorthanded goals on the season, respectively. So, it seems, there’s something else at work, here.

Maybe a little bit of luck, perhaps?

Okay, fine, we really couldn’t resist putting this one in here. It’s… it’s a tiny bit funny, right? Just a tiny bit?

Alright, sorry, we can be a bit more diplomatic about it: it isn’t exactly a textbook example of how you create a shorthanded goal, and Arizona would likely be just as well if every trace of that goal was wiped from the face of the earth. It’s not often that you’re able to get four (4) opposing players to commit to dipping below the goal line to try to get the puck off of you, all of which you’re able to outmuscle to get yourself all alone in front with a goalie who just misreads your play. Mark Jankowski still did some very good work, here, we don’t want to take anything away from him, but this is just as much an instance of him doing good work as it is the opposition just collapsing, playing the situation poorly.

But why don’t we hone in on the work before the maneuvering in the Coyotes’ zone and the ultimate goal. Because there was a pattern that we alluded to and, well, would you look at that. That’s it.

How did Jankowski get the puck behind the goal in the first place? It came from Mark Giordano checking Clayton Keller at the blue line and loosening up the puck, which Derek Ryan collects in the neutral zone and passes over to Jankowski, who’s zipping up ice looking to create something on the rush. It took a little longer than he might have drawn up to get that ultimate shot on goal, but the aim was clear.

This was a setup that ultimately got them something, in this case, but which has also worked to more directly generate shorthanded goals. Let’s take a look at their first shorty of the season, from their October 6 game against Vancouver.

With the Canucks on the power play inside the last minute of play in regulation, and having their goalie pulled to get a second extra attacker out there, the Flames still kept to their aggressive penalty kill play, and reaped the benefits. In this case, it came after the Canucks won their offensive zone draw, looked to get a cycle going, and got the puck over to Brock Boeser at the left point. Michael Frolik was there, and Boeser didn’t even have the chance to do anything with the puck before Frolik was putting pressure on him, and ultimately getting the puck away from him. And from there it was a footrace between Frolik and Boeser, and with the extra step, Frolik was away and in position to chip the puck into the empty net before any other defender could reach him.

And how about just one more example? This one’s the pinnacle of this model working. No weirdness. No empty nets waiting. Just perfect execution.

This one comes from the Flames’ game against the Blues back on December 16. We see the Flames lose the faceoff, but this ends up working in their favor—they know that the Blues want to get the puck to Colton Parayko at the point, and instead of spreading out and perhaps challenging his first pass or shot attempt, Elias Lindholm, the high forward in the defensive zone, goes right after Parayko. He’s able to strip him of the puck, and, because everyone else is committed to getting into position lower in the zone by then, once Lindholm is able to shake Parayko, he’s all alone on a breakaway.

So what’s there to glean from all this? If we were to take this and try to tie it up neatly with a bow? How are the Flames creating all of these shorthanded goals? The cleanest answer is that they’re coming, generally speaking, from establishing a presence at the top of the defensive zone. That’s a little vague, I know, let me explain: it can be an easy trap to fall into, when stuck in the defensive zone for an extended stretch on the penalty kill, to drift lower and lower into the zone and emphasize blocking lanes and shots, and maybe only doing a bit of puck chasing, to let yourself be collapsed, but this is something that the Flames have been pretty actively resisting. Of those 15 shorthanded goals, four have come as a result of placing direct pressure on the opponent at the blue line, stripping them, and then getting away on a rush.

And, if we want to get even more inclusive, 11 of those 15 goals came as a result of efforts that saw the Flames utilizing the player lingering highest in the zone to receive a pass or force a turnover, recognize the opposition’s commitment to their spots low in the zone and burning them for it, getting off on an odd-man rush. It’s a strategy that could conceivably go badly quickly—a man left high in the zone is one that can’t prevent high danger chances from developing in front of the net—but it’s a model that works well for them creating chances of their own. They’re fortunate to have a penalty kill with a good bit of speed from top to bottom, so when they’ve got the puck and they’re away with it, they really are away. It makes them difficult to defend, and leaves little question as to how they’ve managed to be tops in the league in this department, and by such a comfortable margin.

And it may well be a step too far, too optimistic of a take to say for certain that this is a pace that the Flames can sustain through the rest of the season, particularly as team start to bear down and tighten up down the stretch, but it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that this team, with nine of their shorties having come in the last two months, is tapping into something pretty remarkable. Maybe they don’t sustain this pace, but they still maintain the threat of it—opponents down the stretch will have to confront their system, their speed, these numbers, and if that makes them hesitate just a bit more than they might otherwise do, knowing that with one turnover, the Flames can take the puck the other way and make them pay, that’s a win in and of itself. Maybe they don’t stay this flashy, but the threat of conversion may well make an already dangerous team that much more imposing.

All stats via Corsica.Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, and NHL.com