While specialty teams may only account for a handful of minutes out of a game, the Brandon Wheat Kings are leaving points on the table this season with substandard performances by their power-play and penalty-killing units.
A third of the way through the season, the Wheat Kings entered Tuesday sitting 16th out of 22 teams in the Western Hockey League in power-play percentage (17.9) and dead last in penalty killing (69.2).
For a squad that has had 18 of its 24 games decided by two goals or less, even a goal or two a night provided by specialty teams can be a key factor.
"The special teams for sure, they’ll win you hockey games and they can also lose you games," said Wheat Kings forward Nick Buonassisi, whose team has a 10-11-2-1 record heading into Friday’s game against the East Division leading Prince Albert Raiders (7:30 p.m., Westman Place). "The first five or six games we had, our power play was on fire and we had a really good start. And then we got away from some of the stuff we were doing. We were trying to be too fancy and it’s kinda just been a snowball effect because we’ve gone down from there.
"We’ve been working a lot on it and doing a lot of video on it lately and we know it’s struggling, and our PK as well. We’re working on it and hopefully we’ll be a lot better on it this weekend."
Head coach Dwayne Gylywoychuk echoes that the key to power-play success is the execution of some relatively simple concepts.
"We’ve continued to work on it. We’re trying some different personnel on it and I think it’s just a matter of we’ve got to outwork the opposition," he said. "We’ve got to execute our bread-and-butter plays, plays that we work at all the time. And we’ve got to get some shots and some people to the net and sometimes just find the hard-working goal on the power play instead of being picture-perfect."
With star forwards like Mark Stone and Mike Ferland having graduated to professional hockey, the Wheat Kings’ power play this year has revolved around talented blue-liners Ryan Pulock and Eric Roy. Other teams have come to recognize that as well, and Buonassisi said it’s up to the forwards to make plays and take pressure off the point men.
"Obviously, it’s no secret Puly’s got a huge shot back there and if he gets alone on a one-timer, it’s probably going in," Buonassisi said. "Teams are definitely taking that option away from us and they’re putting more pressure on the forwards (to score). …It’s just a matter of getting our confidence back with the down-low plays and eventually they will start covering our forwards and then the big shot from the point will start to open up again."
While the losses up front made a decline in power-play proficiency easy to predict, penalty killing has been a trouble spot for years. The Wheat Kings were 15th in that category last season, 21st the year before, and haven’t finished in the top half of the league since 2007-08, when they were sixth.
Gylywoychuk points to discipline as being one of the issues. In each of the previous five years, the Wheat Kings were short-handed less often than any other team in the WHL. So far this fall, only eight teams have had to send out their PK units more often than Brandon.
"First and foremost I think there’s been some nights where we’ve took too many penalties and it’s hurt us," said Gylywoychuk, who adds he doesn’t believe there is any connection between this year’s penalty-killing performance and that of previous seasons. "I think the other thing is the little things on the penalty kill. We’ve got to make sure that when we have chances to clear the puck, they go 200 feet. I think we’ve been guilty of (failing to do) that a few times. I think we’ve got to have personnel on it that’s willing to block shots and outwork the (other team’s) power play. … I think that our system is good, what we’re doing is good. I think it’s the little things, and every so often we need the big save as well."
ONE-TIMERS: The Wheat Kings got three players back on the ice for Wednesday’s practice, although five — D Ryan Pulock, C Tyrel Seaman, D Colton Waltz, LW Alessio Bertaggia and RW Jens Meilleur — remain out. Bertaggia and Meilleur are both on the injury list, while Gylywoychuk said Seaman was sick and Pulock was given another day to rest after playing four games over the past week — including the first game of the Subway Super Series — while fighting off the flu. Waltz is away from the team on a personal leave, although Gylywoychuk said he should be back shortly.
@07 5 tab:<*p(0,0,0,8.6,0,0,g(P,S))><*t(48,1,"1 "66,1,"1 "81,1,"1 "102.5,1,"1 "129.744,1,"1 ")><Iz8>The WHL’s top five and bottom five teams in scoring differential
on specialty teams (excludes Tuesday’s games):
PPGF SHGF PPGA SHGA Diff
Edmonton 25 4 8 2 +19
Kamloops 31 4 19 2 +14
Portland 21 1 10 3 +9
Spokane 21 4 15 1 +9
Swift Current 26 5 19 3 +9
PPGF SHGF PPGA SHGA Diff
Prince Albert 14 3 24 1 -8
Everett 16 3 27 2 -10
Vancouver 13 1 25 2 -13
Prince George 15 0 22 6 -13
Brandon 20 1 33 4 -16
PPGF: Power-play goals for.
SHGF: Short-handed goals for.
PPGA: Power-play goals against.
SHGA: Short-handed goals against.
Diff: Goal differential is power-play goals and short-handed goals for, minus power-play and short-handed goals against.