KEARNEY -- Owning a 2-5-1-1 record, it has been a bit of a rough start to the season for the Tri-City Storm.
But while a younger team works to figure things out, there is one area where the Storm can count on being successful game after game.
Tri-City’s penalty kill unit has only allowed three power-play goals on 35 opportunities. That 91.4% penalty kill rate ranks third in the United States hockey League.
“I think (assistant) coach (Ethan) Goldberg does an incredible job with that unit as he has the last two years,” Storm head coach Anthony Noreen said. “The plan is clear. The expectations are clear, and those guys go out and execute.”
A successful PK unit usually leads to a successful team. The only undefeated team left in the Western Conference, Waterloo, is also a perfect 27-for-27 on the penalty kill.
“If you just look at the sheer statistics of it, every team that has been a top four team on both sides the last five years has at least been a top six penalty kill team,” Noreen said. “It leads to wins. (Tri-City’s PK unit) been good so far, and hopefully it starts translating.”
Storm forward Benji Eckerle said it isn’t a surprise that the penalty kill unit has been so tough to score against.
“The biggest thing is we’re returning almost all of our PK forwards from last year,” he said. “So, it’s easy to try and settle back into what we were doing last year. We were the No. 1 PK last year, so we’re experienced and we’re confident going in there that we can shut anybody down.”
And the right mindset is a big part to killing off penalties.
“You’ve got to have confidence to block shots and be in pressure,” Eckerle said. “We have the attitude that we’re going to completely wreck them every time out. It’s 4-on-5, so you have to have that swagger that our four are better than their five. That’s what we do.”
While the goaltenders get all of the statistical credit for stopping shots, some of the biggest plays are made before the puck even reaches him and won’t show up on the scoresheet.
Players going down to block shots are a key element to keeping teams from scoring when a team is playing a man (or two) down.
“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” said forward Ian Murphy. “It’s just being a good teammate and trying to help the guys behind you. If everyone is blocking more shots, we’re going to win more games. We’ve got to keep trying to continue to do that every day.”
Tri-City showed the importance of blocking shots during Sunday’s 4-2 home win over Cedar Rapids to snap a four-game losing streak.
Murphy put on a show while blocking three shots in a 25-second span to help kill off a penalty in the second period.
How does that feel?
“It depends where you get it,” Murphy said. “It can hurt really bad or not at all. A lot of times the legs and feet can hurt a lot. Upper body can hurt a lot, but we have a lot of gear up there. Usually it’s all right.”
Cedar Rapids received a late power-play opportunity trailing 3-2. But Eckerle laid out to block a shot, and seconds later he was racing up the ice and putting away a shorthanded breakaway to seal the win.
“(Blocking shots) is something we work on all week in practice, so it’s kind of instinctual,” he said. “It’s something that has to get done. You know what to do when that opportunity presents itself.”
Murphy said that blocking shots displays the chemistry of the Storm.
“We’re all fighting for each other, we all love each other,” he said. “It just shows how much we want to win and how we’re going to sacrifice our bodies for each other. It’s just awesome to see.”
And a big blocked shot in a key situation can be a huge emotional boost for a team, as displayed in Sunday’s victory.
“Usually when you see stuff like that happen, the bench feeds off it and you just feel that the guys deserve it,” Noreen said. “It was nice to see the result because I thought everybody sacrificed their body and did the work.”
Dale Miller is a sports writer for the Independent.