A season ago the Reign’s penalty kill was a machine. It functioned at its max strength from Game 1 to Game 68, finishing first in the AHL by being effective 88.7 percent of the time.
The early results this season show a steep decline: The Reign are third to last in the league on the penalty kill through eight games at 70 percent. They’ve allowed 14 power play goals against already where last year they allowed just 33 total.
“We’re getting scored on it so yeah, there’s a concern. Last year we were first in the league and this year it seems like we can’t get through one,” head coach Mike Stothers said Wednesday. “It’s hard to put your finger on but when you look at it you can’t deny who we’re missing. We don’t have Forby, we don’t have Schultzy, we don’t have Dowd, we now don’t have Gravel, we don’t have Budes. When you look at it you go on one hand it looks like it’s all the same guys, but it’s not. Those guys were significant. We get a penalty, it was Dowd-Mersch to start the PK. Budes was there. I’m not saying any one position is important but Budes had an MVP season last year, so that also helped.”
Many of the players from that long list of nicknames currently have lockers in Los Angeles: Derek Forbort, Kevin Gravel, Nic Dowd and Peter Budaj. Jeff Schultz signed with the Ducks organization in the offseason.
Like most problems, this one is multi-faceted. The first is the personnel and the next ones up needing to quickly taking on extended roles. Michael Mersch and Vincent LoVerde are penalty kill regulars from a season ago, but with the departures of others comes to added responsibility for players like Adrian Kempe, Jonny Brodzinski, Paul LaDue, Justin Auger and Andrew Crescenzi. We’ll stop the list there.
“I think it’s just part of the process,” Stothers said. “Guys like Kempe and that, I think he’s going to be a terrific penalty killer, and the guys that we’re using, we’re trying to use more guys. There’s always going to be some hiccups along the way.”
Stothers believes too that the new regime has “to get the reps in to be able to do” what the previous one did. Experience in net should help as well with Jack Campbell and Anders Lindback now their listed 1-2 punch after a revolving list of candidates due to injuries.
The PK struggles were amplified last weekend in back-to-back losses to Tucson in which the Reign killed just two of six penalties, allowing the Roadrunners’ potent power play to score half of their goals on (4 of 8) on the man advantage. “It did,” Mersch said, agreeing that it hurt their chances in Tucson.
But still, there’s hope it can be rectified.
“We have the same structure. So, it will come together and it will probably come together at the right timing for us,” said Mersch. “We’ve been working hard at it, we just feel like we’re getting some bad bounces, which is unfortunate. We’re going to keep working hard at it and that’s all.”
The problems on the penalty kill begin with the amount of penalties the team is taking in the first place. In a three-in-three two weekends ago in Texas, 5-on-3s were commonplace and stung Stothers. In two of those games the Reign were shorthanded a combined 16 times. The good news there is they allowed just two goals on those 16 kills, so they’re quite capable, it’s just a matter of pulling everything together consistently.
“I know I can complain about the refs, there’s good reason, they’re not very good. Some of them we deserved. You can’t say we didn’t deserve any of them,” Stothers said. “So there’s a difference between playing hard and crossing that line and we’ve got to keep working on playing hard and realizing when we’re pushing the envelope.
“It’s like anything else, just when you think you’ve got something going, it falls apart and then you’ve got to fix it and then something else falls apart. But, we’re working on it, we’re conscious of it. But, it’s one of those things where you want to be aware of it but not dwell on it too much because it makes it even harder. Then everybody’s worked up.”