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A look into the Phantoms’ penalty kill

The penalty kill has struggled this season, but why?

Kate Frese / SB Nation

Statistically, the Phantoms’ penalty kill has been one of the worst in the league this season. The 80.79% penalty kill, which is ranked 23rd in the league, has allowed 29 goals in 151 shorthanded situations. This comes at a bit of a surprise, as the penalty kill had been improving and becoming a strength of the team over the past few seasons.

Penalty Kill by Season

Year PK% Rank
Year PK% Rank
14-15 81.64% 23rd
15-16 84.09% 10th
16-17 84.03% 5th
17-18 80.79% 23rd

I’d love to throw numbers at you regarding shots and scoring chances against for each season, but that’s not possible. Instead, let’s take a look at the penalty kill as a system and put the eye test to work.

Neutral Zone Forecheck

Primarily, the Phantoms use one of the more passive neutral zone forechecking systems that is out there, the 1-2-1 retreating. Forward 1 (F1) applies minimal pressure while skating backwards towards the defensive zone, while forward 2 (F2) and defenseman 1 (D1) take their spot on the blue line. Defenseman 2 (D2) stands behind the blue line, and it’s his job to either recover a dump-in, or try to disrupt the puck carrier if the three players ahead of him allow a controlled entry.

In the example above, once the opposing puck carrier decides to attack the middle of the ice, F1 steps up and pressures him into choosing a side. Once that choice is made, D1 steps up as well, to block the passing lane. This denies the only possible play the puck carrier has left, and forces him to turn around and re-group. The vulnerability here is along the boards. If the puck carrier had ignored the middle of the ice and tried to make a pass sooner, the chances of a successful entry would be much higher. If you look closely at F1’s skates, it’s almost like he was baiting the puck carrier to try and get past him on his right side. Now, that could also just be his way of blocking the passing lane to his left, but either way that’s a nice, subtle play by F1 (Radel Fazleev).

Their second most common forechecking system is one that I couldn’t actually find a name for, so I like to call it the 3-1 trap. The 3-1 trap is basically the 1-2-1 retreating with just one tweak. Once the unit reaches the blue line, F1 stands on the blue line along with F2 and D1 instead of standing a bit in front of it.

Here you can see the 1-2-1 retreating evolve into the 3-1 trap when F1 forms a line with F2 and D1. I’m not particularly a fan of this set-up, but I’m sure there’s sound reasoning to it that I’m not privy to. In my opinion, it has the same vulnerabilities as the 1-2-1, while also giving the puck carrier way more ice to work with. However, this has shown some effectiveness, most notably in a game against the Laval Rocket, where they denied two controlled entries, and recovered a forced dump-in all in succession.

There are a few other variations of the 1-2-1 that they use, but not consistently enough to warrant a full breakdown.

The Defensive Zone

Once the puck enters the zone, the Phantoms turn up the pressure. They primarily use the Wedge (or Triangle) +1 formation, also known as the “Czech Press”. This is one of the most commonly used aggressive penalty kill systems, and has also used by their parent club, the Philadelphia Flyers.

Immediately following a faceoff, Tyrell Goulbourne takes the role of F1 and attacks the defenseman. Once he forces the pass and chases the forward down the boards, he and Corban Knight switch roles as the defenseman once again receives the puck. This is a basic example of the Czech Press and the rotation between penalty kill forwards.

Generally speaking, aggressive penalty kills are more successful than passive penalty kills. Not only do passive penalty kills allow too many shots, they give high-skilled passers too much time to make a play. We’ve all seen what Claude Giroux can do when he’s given time and space on the power-play.

In this example, you have both a forward and a defenseman attacking the puck-carrier along the boards. This leaves the other forward alone to defend the passing lane in the middle of the ice, while also having to defend the point. Once the pass is made to the point, the forward doesn’t have enough time to close the gap and get in position to block the shot. This leads to a rebound and eventual goal against.

Now, allowing a point shot isn’t exactly a bad thing considering you’re down a player. If the opposing team is going to get a shot, you’d prefer it be from out high rather than down low. The problem here is that the Phantoms’ defenseman along the boards doesn’t get back to net to stop the eventual goal-scorer from getting the rebound. This really isn’t a system issue either, rather an individual mistake. As you can see, he kind of gets caught puck-watching here, and doesn’t go to tie up the forward’s stick until the puck is already in the net.

Sometimes the triangle just falls apart completely.

Here we have Philippe Myers and Corban Knight attacking the puck carrier along the boards. When the pass is made to the opposite side of the ice, both Tyrell Goulbourne and Mark Alt focus on the player receiving the pass, leaving the eventual goal-scorer wide open in front of the net. To me, there’s no real obvious gaffe here, but some of the blame could be shared between Myers and Goulbourne. However, your penalty kill will get burned by great passing every so often, and that may just be the case here. You have to give the offensive player credit for getting that pass through three Phantoms’ sticks.

These were just two random examples I pulled from games, but that seems to be the trend here. It’s not the system that’s failing, it’s not the goaltending that’s dragging them down (for the most part, their numbers are still shaky as a whole), it’s one mistake that ends up in the net.

Shorthanded Chances

Finally, the biggest positive of this penalty kill, in my opinion, is the offense it generates. Something that the Czech Press does well is lead to shorthanded chances, and while the goals haven’t been there, the chances sure have. The Phantoms have only scored four shorthanded goals, which puts them in the bottom half of the league, but it would not be a surprise to see an uptick in that ranking by the end of the season.

In this example, Matt Read takes a calculated risk, and instead of replacing Lindblom as the top of the triangle, he reads the play and breaks up the pass. It wasn’t the safe play, but it was the correct play.

The Phantoms pose a legitimate threat to score during most of their penalty kills. This isn’t a unit that settles for icing the puck unless they’re fatigued, and when there’s an opportunity to carry it out, they do.

Should we expect improvement?

Short answer; yes, but there will be challenges. As the season goes on, the mistakes should work their way out of the penalty kill, but it will be interesting to see their results while their best defensive center, Corban Knight, is “out for awhile” with an injury. Steven Swavely has shown signs of being able to handle that role, and a possible Matt Read return could not come at a better time. Getting the penalty kill back to posting results like it did over the past two seasons will be vital to this team making noise in the playoffs.