The numbers are alarming but Don Nachbaur isn’t panicking for a number of reasons.
The Spokane Chiefs’ power play is limping along at a 14.6 percent success rate – thanks to a current 0-for-24 streak, heading into Saturday night’s Western Hockey League game against the Everett Silvertips at the Arena – with more issues than goals.
Not the least of which is the competition. Four of Spokane’s seven games have been against the two expected U.S. Division favorites, Tri-City and Portland, and the other three games have been on the road. A new coach could also factor into the struggle, but Nachbaur really isn’t buying into that.
“Any good system is based on shooting the hockey puck, supporting the hockey puck, winning battles,” the Chiefs’ coach said. “The bottom line with our team is we had some early success and we’ve gotten away from that.”
All things considered, it’s probably more surprising Spokane opened the season with seven power-play goals in 24 chances, an above-average 29 percent.
“Twenty percent is usually where you want to be,” Nachbaur said, “If the power play and penalty kill combine for 106 to 108, you have good special teams.”
It was well-known the Chiefs lost a lot of firepower from last season’s team and their absence is especially pronounced on the power play.
Basically only three players with considerable experience are back – Tyler Johnson (11 goals), Levko Koper (eight) and Jared Cowen (five) – from a unit that made teams pay for penalties at a 24.9 percent clip (70 of 281). And Cowen, a defenseman, was often stationed in front of the net for screens and deflections while Jared Spurgeon quarterbacked the power play from the blue line, with help from forward Mitch Wahl.
Spurgeon had 43 assists in 54 games, 30 on the power play, while Wahl had 23 of his 66 helpers with the man advantage. Also gone is Kyle Beach, who had 16 of his league-leading 52 goals on the power play.
“We, as a team, know that,” Nachbaur said. “We’re patient with that part of the game. Until guys learn those roles, we’re going to have good games and bad games. You’re not going to have consistency and that’s what we strive for. That’s what experience does for you and we’re really inexperienced in a lot of areas.”
Cowen is now the point man and even though Johnson and Koper are up front, getting the puck to them in the right spots – which is why Nachbaur keeps using the term quarterback – has proven difficult.
Another departed defenseman, Stefan Ulmer, had 18 of his 33 assists on the power play.
“We have three different setups but the setup is not the problem,” he said. “You watched Tri-City when we played them. They made crisp passes, tape-to-tape, and they beat our pressure. When we got to the puck, the puck was going by us. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that. It’s called skill. Skill makes good passes, skill sees the areas to pass to. It takes skill to shoot and it takes skill to be the quarterback on the power play.
“We’re working on those types of drill every day. You don’t get any better hitting the baseball than practicing hitting baseballs. It’s part of the game you keep working on. It’s the mechanics. It’s the different pieces such as shooting, analyzing how the guys are releasing the puck, what part of the blade they’re using. It’s a science but it’s not science. The only thing that makes you better is repetition – and hard work.”
On the flip side, the Chiefs’ penalty kill is at a respectable 85.7 percent, though three short-handed goals on 42 penalties is a cause for concern.
It’s just that the power play is under scrutiny because of an 0-for-17 performance in 3-2 and 2-1 losses to Portland at the Arena last week, made worse by a 48-19 advantage in shots the first game.
“The last two games against Portland we put some pucks into a situation where it created battles for Portland, went into their strength,” Nachbaur explained. “We put a lot of pucks down the wall vs. to the net. Simply put, when you start over complicating the game such as passing it vs. shooting it, you don’t have the same success as the guys that are shooting it.
“We shot the puck more in our first games than we did the last three or four games. It’s a mentality, pass vs. shoot. We don’t have a lot of shooters out there right now. The other side is, when you get 48 shots, such as the Portland game, and no success, guys start pressing. Pressing is passing vs. shooting.”