BUFFALO, N.Y. — A noticeable element coinciding with recent Kraken wins has been an all-around upgrade in the play of their special teams.
The power-play and penalty-killing units have taken major steps forward in recent weeks, which also happens to be when the Kraken began devoting more practice sessions to them. Heading into Monday night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres, the Kraken had successfully killed off penalties in four straight outings — going a perfect 9 for 9 — while combining for three power-play goals, giving them a +3 differential over that span for the NHL’s second-best mark behind Dallas.
They killed off the first two Monday as well, scoring short-handed goals on both. But Jeff Skinner finally snapped the Kraken’s penalty kill streak at 11 by notching a power-play goal late in the second period, sliding a puck through the crease that went off goalie Chris Driedger’s skate.
The power-play unit has been clicking for some time, converting 8 of 23 opportunities over the last three weeks for a league-high a 34.8% success rate over that span.
“We’ve had the same units for a while now, so it’s good to sort of figure out guys’ tendencies and what they like to do,” Morgan Geekie, a power-play regular for much of the successful stretch, said after Monday’s morning skate. “We’ve had success, and I think it was just a matter of time. I think we’re moving the puck well and playing with speed. If we continue to do that day-in and day-out, I think we’ll keep adding to our success.”
Kraken forward Jared McCann led the team with five power-play goals entering play Monday, fourth-best in the league. His 14 career points against Buffalo were his most vs. any NHL team.
Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said “chemistry” between players is a critical element to the power-play and penalty-killing. And on penalty killing, it applies to defensive pairings as well as forward line combinations.
“A lot of it is a systematic feel,” Hakstol said. “But also, you’re reading off the people you’re on the ice with a little bit as well. And in order to do that and be able to play fast, you have to have some of that chemistry.”
Hakstol said the Sabres would provide a “challenge” to his penalty killers, given they entered the game with the league’s 11th best unit at an efficiency rate of 20.8%. The Kraken’s penalty kill sat 14th in the league, fending off power-plays 82.2% of the time.
Gourde hits milestone
Kraken center Yanni Gourde hit a milestone just 5:47 into Monday’s game when he fed a pass back to Carson Soucy and watched the defenseman drill a slap shot past Sabres netminder Dustin Tokarski for the game’s opening goal.
The assist was the 200th point of Gourde’s career, making him the ninth active player to reach that milestone without having been drafted. Despite winning a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League scoring title with 37 goals and 87 assists for his Victoriaville squad in 2011-12, Gourde notoriously went unselected by NHL teams. He had to sign an AHL free-agent contract before working his way up the ranks and eventually becoming a Tampa Bay Lightning mainstay.
“It’s a big milestone for me, but at the same time I’m not looking at it too much,” Gourde had said before the game. “I just want to play my game and do the right thing and when that point comes I’ll be happy; I’ll be pumped.”
The Kraken have two of the best undrafted players in the NHL, with team captain Mark Giordano — still out because of COVID-19 protocol — leading all such players with 370 career assists and 516 points.
Gourde had 85 goals and 114 assists to comprise his 199 points entering Monday. But he’d reached those totals in just 327 career games, compared to 968 for Giordano.
Driedger gets another start
Hakstol opted to start goalie Chris Driedger, coming off his strong performance in a 4-1 win over Florida on Saturday, in consecutive games Monday for the first time this season. Kraken goalie Philipp Grubauer had won his last five games over Buffalo dating to February 2018 — including a victory earlier this month at home — while posting a 1.20 goals against average and .952 save percentage in those matchups.
But Hakstol is looking to balance the workload of his goalies going forward and opted to ride Driedger’s hot hand.
“He had a real competitive night two nights ago,” Hakstol said. “And like I’ve said, we need both our goaltenders. We need both (Dreidger) and (Grubauer) going as we head through this busy stretch. He’s coming off a good night and we’re looking forward to him going back and giving us a similar performance.”
The Kraken’s three-goal outburst in the first period Monday marked only the second time all season they’d taken a multi-goal lead in the opening frame. They’d previously held leads of 2-1 and 3-1 against Arizona in the first period of a Nov. 6 game but went on to lose 5-4.
That Arizona game was also the only prior time the Kraken had scored three goals in the opening period.