The Bruins weren't very good at scoring goals last year. In fact, they were dead last in the league in scoring. But they still found a way to make the playoffs and came within a win of reaching the conference finals.
They did that largely through their defense, which surrendered fewer goals than all but one team in the NHL last year. And much of that success came from their third-ranked penalty kill, which operated at an 86.4-percent efficiency in 2009-10. That improved to a league-best 90 percent in the playoffs, including a perfect 19 for 19 against Buffalo in the opening round.
The Bruins hope to have solved some of their offensive issues with the additions of Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin, and early returns there are quite positive with the duo combining for four of Boston's five goals in their two-game split with Phoenix in Prague to start the season.
But the Bruins don't want to abandon their stingy defense in the process, and that means finding a way to maintain their effectiveness on the PK while working in some new personnel on that unit.
"It's been kind of a work in progress, but you see guys building chemistry out there," said forward Blake Wheeler. "As long as the puck's not going in the net, that's all that matters."
Wheeler is one of the holdovers from last year's group of penalty-killing forwards. He skated primarily with David Krejci last season, while Daniel Paille and Steve Begin were usually the first pair out and Patrice Bergeron and Marco Sturm were also key contributors up front. Begin wasn't re-signed this summer, while Sturm is out until at least late November recovering from knee surgery, so some new tandems will have to jell quickly this season.
"[It's] just building some familiarity with each other," said Wheeler. "You have to be on the ice with each other for a while to build some chemistry. Once you're out there, it's just knowing where each other is going to go and from there it's pretty easy."
Newcomer Gregory Campbell will take over Begin's role on the PK, while youngsters like Brad Marchand and Jordan Caron got some short-handed shifts on Sunday when Paille was scratched. Paille is still expected to be a key component on the PK, and has spent time working with Campbell in camp and expects the former Florida player to fit seamlessly into the Bruins' penalty-killing system.
"I played in the World Juniors with him and I also played against him for many years in junior and obviously when he played for Florida," said Paille. "He's kind of similar to how Begin was. He's got that type of energetic attitude and I think with this system it works out perfect for him. I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do on the PK out there with us because that's definitely what his specialty was with Florida and throughout his career."
Campbell was glad to get a head start on working with Paille in camp, as he believes the cohesion that comes from working with a familiar partner is a key to a good penalty kill.
"It's nice to get comfortable with somebody from the start," said Campbell. "I was fortunate last year to play with one guy [Panthers forward Radek Dvorak] pretty much the whole year on the penalty kill. You get to know each other's tendencies.
"It is pretty cool to come in here and know that this is a team that takes a lot of pride in the penalty kill," added Campbell. "For me it's a little bit of an adjustment. Our system was a little bit different in Florida, so it's nice to have Dan who went through the same thing I'm going through now last year to help me along and show me the areas I might not be too familiar with."
That chemistry is just the first step toward creating an effective penalty kill. There's a lot more that goes into it than just knowing what your teammates are likely to do.
"You have to have high energy," said Campbell. "You have to have good anticipation. You have to have an active stick and make sure you're almost one step ahead of the power play. Obviously you're a man short, so you have to do a little more. You have to almost play as if you're a man and a half.
"The other thing you have to do is you have to be willing to sacrifice you're body," added Campbell. "You have to block shots. That's part of our job as penalty killers and that helps out the goalie a lot."
The Bruins didn't have to put their penalty killers to work too much in Prague, as Phoenix had just three power-play chances in the two games (converting one). That's nothing new for the Bruins, who allowed the fifth fewest power-play chances in the league last season (272) and the fewest power-play goals (37).
The Bruins would like to continue to limit their opponents' chances with the man-advantage, but at least they know they have one of the best penalty kills in the league to call upon when they do have an extra body in the box.