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The Penalty Kill is Killing the Blue Jackets

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Can they fix it?

San Jose Sharks v Columbus Blue Jackets
Assistant Coach Brad Shaw is responsible for coaching the penalty kill
Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

The Columbus Blue Jackets have been better at generating offensive chances over the last week (but still suffer a poor shooting percentage; just 5 goals on 88 shots in the last two games), but they are nonetheless suffering a 4 game losing streak. The primary cause is the struggling penalty kill.

In the early months of the season, the power play was inept, but the penalty kill was one of the best. The Blue Jackets ranked 6th in October and 9th in November. They fell to 24th in December as several key penalty killers went on the injured list (Ryan Murray, Brandon Dubinsky, Alexander Wennberg, Cam Atkinson). In January, they had the worst PK in the league, at an abysmal 57.1%. They have surrendered a power play goal in 6 consecutive games, including Tuesday’s heartbreaking loss to Washington. This is coming from the same unit that had a streak of 6 games without a PPG allowed in October, and a streak of 8 in November.

Since the end of that 8 game streak, the Blue Jackets are last in the league at 68.3% on the PK. If you think the problem is taking penalties in the first place, think again. In that same time frame, the Blue Jackets are tied for 4th in fewest times shorthanded, with 79 in 30 games. Yet they’ve killed just 54 of those penalties.

What are they doing wrong? Let’s look at some of the goals they’ve allowed in the last week. No, I didn’t enjoy this. Yes, you do deserve to watch this. Existence is pain. Nothing means anything. Arby’s: Official Sponsor of your Columbus Blue Jackets.

First up is the opening goal from the game against San Jose on Friday:

First, Kevin “not Matt” Lebanc has the puck on the half wall. Jack Johnson and Josh Anderson converge on him, but not in time to keep up from passing back to Logan “Haute” Couture.

Notice that the PK unit is still in box formation, and is shifted to the puck side of the ice. This is still OK at this point. They’re not letting the Sharks inside, and they’re keeping them from passing across the middle. The problem comes when the right side of the box doesn’t move back in time.

Nick Foligno is stuck in the middle. Anderson is not able to get over in time either. Neither gets to block the shot, and combined with Brent Burns they shield Sergei Bobrovsky from seeing the puck, and it goes past his left shoulder into a very tight window into the net.

Meanwhile, Couture had a second option if he decided not to shoot through traffic. Tomas Hertl is wide open in the faceoff circle. A quick pass could find him before Savard and Bob could adjust, or he could tap it to Joe Pavelski for a still open net.

The next night, the Jackets were in Brooklyn to face the New York Islanders. Columbus put up a franchise record 26 shots in the first period, but left it tied at 1-1 thanks to this power play goal:

Mathew Barzal carries the puck into the zone and is chased in by Cam Atkinson. As he reaches the wall he is sandwiched by Cam and David Savard, and the puck comes loose. That’s good! Neither Jacket can disengage to collect it. That’s bad! Jack Johnson is...well I’m not sure what’s going through his mind here. Does he think he can get the puck? John Tavares is so much closer to it!

This puts 3 Jackets past the left faceoff dot, with just Jussi Jokinen alone in the slot to cover 3 Islanders. Just from this freeze frame, you can see how many options Tavares has. You don’t want to give Tavares options.

Anders Lee goes to the net, and no one is there to stop him. Josh Bailey sets up on the faceoff dot. Tavares passes to Nick Leddy, who waits just long enough for Jussi Jokinen to hit the ground in desperation before shooting over him and between Lee and Joonas Korpisalo’s shoulder. Savard and Atkinson are just spectators at this point.

Finally, we have the one power play Washington got on Tuesday. This was actually a much better PK than we have seen lately. Rather than scoring right away, the Blue Jackets managed to clear the puck multiple times. It was with 30 seconds remaining that the Capitals finally got their goal.

When John Carlson hits his one-timer, I think the Blue Jackets are where they need to be:

Cam is watching Alexander Ovechkin. Zach Werenski is on Nicklas Backstrom, who just passed to Carlson. Seth Jones is trying to keep Evgeny Kuznetsov away from the crease. This inadvertently shields Bob. Foligno is on both T.J. Oshie and Carlson, and does get in the way of the shot. The puck may have changed course slightly after grazing either his stick or his skate.

Like the San Jose goal, it just sneaks in through a tight window past Bob’s glove side.

So, how do we fix it? The biggest thing is improving situational awareness. Each player needs to stay within his role and not try to make every play himself. Too much freelancing just makes things tougher for their teammates.

Whatever has to happen, John Tortorella and Brad Shaw have to make it happen soon. These goals are momentum killers in otherwise winnable games, games which are critical in sorting the highly competitive Metro Division.