BUFFALO, N.Y. — A quarter of the way through their debut season, the Kraken appear determined to at least make it more interesting.
After an initial 5 1/2 weeks in which fans and pundits openly wondered whether the Kraken were a reincarnation of 1990s-era NHL expansion disasters, the team made a statement by winning three of four against top contenders. And they demonstrated they could sustain the relentless, high-energy style so often missing previously for three full periods.
As a result, the Kraken passed their season’s quarter mark at 7-13-1 and within eight points of a final playoff spot they have through April to whittle away at. Kraken coach Dave Hakstol, in summing up what worked in his team’s 4-1 win Saturday night over the Florida Panthers, also provided the blueprint for swinging future wins their way.
“The guys did a real good job, in terms of being ready to go and playing hard together for 60 minutes,” Hakstol said.
And the “60 minutes” part is really the key. Hakstol alluded to it multiple times during his postgame session while players have referenced it repeatedly the past week. There were nights during the team’s six-game losing streak, as in defeats before, when the Kraken felt they’d worked hard without earning a result.
But working hard and working effectively aren’t always the same. And working hard at the level the Kraken have in most games the past week isn’t the same as doing it when they already trail by multiple goals.
For all their work, the Florida game was the first time in exactly three weeks that Hakstol’s team scored first. Some of that is undoubtedly attributable to shaky Kraken goaltending.
As every advanced analytics expert and amateur eye-test specialist has pointed out, Kraken netminder Philipp Grubauer wasn’t great in the season’s first quarter. Neither was Chris Driedger, though an injury and a lack of playing time almost certainly contributed to his poor numbers.
It goes without saying that any team with an NHL-worst combined save percentage of .873 — league average is .907 — won’t win many games regardless of what everybody else is doing.
Other nights, though, it was the forwards whose skates appeared encased in cement.
First periods comprise part of a 60-minute game, and the Kraken did come out sluggish in too many of them in the season’s first five weeks. The lowlight was a home start against Anaheim in which the Kraken were outshot 14-4 yet stayed close at 1-0 because of standout goaltending from Grubauer.
The team has already indicated it will move to a more equitable goaltending split of game action between goalies. In the meantime, though, the goaltending issues did obscure other Kraken shortcomings worth monitoring as the season progresses.
It’s been pointed out repeatedly since the expansion draft that the Kraken don’t exactly have a plethora of career 25-goal-men. They must work the proverbial full 60 minutes to grind out offense.
Jordan Eberle is delivering beyond expectations with a team-high 11 goals and tied with Jaden Schwartz for the points lead with 16. Yanni Gourde is next in line with 12 points, the same as Jared McCann — whose eight goals are second-highest on the team and a welcome surprise, as are the six by Brandon Tanev.
But three goals combined between Joonas Donskoi, Calle Jarnkrok and Alex Wennberg is far less than the Kraken was counting on. The Kraken have yet to demonstrate they can replicate their recent four-goal and five-goal games — or even more three-goal efforts — with consistency.
A telling stat is the Kraken are 0-12-0 in games they trail by two goals at any point, an indicator they don’t score enough to play catch-up.
That stat also reflects 60-minute efforts, or lack of. The Kraken admittedly sagged in games where they’d worked hard only to allow a deflating goal. Other games, they came out tentative and their biggest outbursts happened only once down multiple goals.
One difference in this winning stretch is the Kraken scoring in meaningful situations. Netting three against the Colorado Avalanche when down 7-0 does nothing, but McCann scoring a second-period goal to tie Wednesday’s game 1-1 against Carolina was huge. As was Marcus Johansson adding a second Kraken goal with three minutes to go when things were still tied.
No team wins every single period on the scoreboard or outplays an opponent all 60 minutes. But teams playing a “60-minute game” will limit lapses more effectively than the Kraken have since opening night and push back when games are still within reach.
On the defensive side, there wasn’t much to improve as blue liners have limited so-called “high danger” chances at an above average rate. But the Kraken, defensemen and forwards alike, seemed to up their intensity in recent games when it came to blocking shots and clearing rebounds.
“I think we’re starting to play the right way over 60 minutes,” Johansson said. “There’s going to be times when they have us under pressure and they have possession of the puck … but I think it’s the way you weather it. Guys are blocking shots, and we’re doing whatever it takes to keep the puck out of the net. That’s how you need to play to win games.”
And when you do that — and your goalies stop letting in every miscue — good things can happen when your scoring increases even marginally.
The Kraken have scored two goals or fewer in 11 of their 21 games and are 1-9-1 in such contests. On the plus side, they’ve gone 6-4-0 when scoring three or more and 6-2-0 when notching at least four goals.
So, scoring at least three a little more often could be big. Part of that can be helped by the improving power play.
Three weeks ago, the Kraken were last among 32 teams in power play percentage. Since then, they’ve climbed to 19th — having gone 8-for-23 for a league-best 35% conversion rate during that span.
Part of the success is improved work by the Kraken down low, generating shots and gathering rebounds near the opposing net.
Conversely, the Kraken have also not allowed a power-play goal in a season-high four straight games and sit 14th overall with an 82.2% success rate at killing penalties.
Excelling at special teams is also part of a “60-minute game” because nothing kills energy more than a floundering power-play or yielding a huge goal after a tough penalty.
Have the real Kraken finally shown up? Was it just a matter of an expansion team needing time to get to know one another and a new system?
We’ll find out.
“This is the level we need to play at,” McCann said last week. “There’s no more excuses. We know we can do it. It’s just a matter of everybody being focused every single night that we’re playing and coming out with a good effort.”