Between John Tavares’ ability to hound opposing puck carriers into submission and the NHL’s crackdown on slashing, you might think Tavares’ penalty numbers would be up.
You’d be underestimating the Isles’ captain. He’s at six penalty minutes through 23 games, his lowest total through that span in any season since his rookie year. And even after Saturday’s win in Ottawa in which the Isles gave the Senators six power plays, Doug Weight’s team has kept the minor penalties low, another factor in their strong start.
“We talked about it early in the year with everybody. We keyed on that first six weeks as being paramount as far as practicing not using your stick,” Weight said. “That’s a big part of [Tavares’] game, that kind of thievery — the [Pavel] Datsyuk style of getting your stick in there. I think the credit goes to him because you’d think once out of every six, seven times, someone’s going to step on his stick or it’s going to go up and hit the hands. It’s incredible the amount he hounds the puck — that’s good leadership by him.”
There are a few skilled forwards with a fairly high number of minors this year. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Predators’ Ryan Johansen has taken 13 minors, Detroit’s Dylan Larkin and Buffalo’s Evander Kane have 12 each and Sidney Crosby, who’s been known to give a few whacks across the hands, has 11.
But Tavares said the key to not using one’s stick to dislodge a puck from an opponent and risk taking a penalty is to keep the feet moving.
“Especially if you’re coming back off the rush, those last few steps instead of slowing down or gliding in, relying on your stick for a chop or a whack,” Tavares said. “You’ve got to keep your stick on the ice, keep your feet moving, certainly in the corners. I always find you can get a guy up against the boards and try to poke a puck free. Just trying to make it tough and close time and space.”
The slashing crackdown was designed to allow players such as Tavares to carry the puck without getting slashed, but it appears that another Islander has been the biggest beneficiary of the new rules.
Mathew Barzal’s wizardry with the puck has gotten him notice, and his speed and maneuverability have been on display without that legion of slashes that players in the past have faced. His rush around the Ottawa zone to start the play that Jordan Eberle finished for a key second goal Saturday might not have looked so pretty if the Senators had been allowed to crack the whip on him as he danced.
“Having the puck, guys really can’t whack you as much. It helps,” Barzal said. “For me, I’m just trying to watch my stick when I don’t have the puck. Especially being a younger guy, they tend to watch you a little more closely.”