When a teammate skates toward the penalty box, the Oklahoma City Barons' Chris VandeVelde climbs over the boards.
Time to go to work.
The Barons' fourth-line center doesn't fill up stat sheets. His primary role is on the penalty-killing unit.
“It's definitely not glamorous,” VandeVelde said. “If you know the game of hockey, it's a huge part. Even the role of being a third- or fourth-line center is huge. If it's a penalty kill, we want to be as stingy as possible.”
The Barons have been the hottest team in the American Hockey League the past two months. The late-season surge can be traced to a hot goaltender (Yann Danis), improved defense and vastly improved penalty-kill unit.
A key stat has surfaced heading into Game 4 of the Barons' Western Conference second-round, best-of-7 series Wednesday night against the Texas Stars.
The Barons are 5-0 in the playoffs when they kill off every penalty, 0-3 when their opponent scores a power-play goal.
“We got hot at the right time and the penalty kill was very good for us,” VandeVelde said. “That's continued in the playoffs. It's huge. That's why when we don't allow a (power-play) goal we're undefeated. When we kill penalties, we're hard to play against.”
Oklahoma City leads the series 2-1. The Barons have an opportunity to take control when they host Games 4 and 5 (Thursday night) at the Cox Convention Center before the series shifts back to Cedar Parks, Texas, if necessary.
Danis is 16-4-4 with a 1.93 goals-against average and .931 save percentage since he returned from Edmonton two months ago.
VandeVelde and the penalty-killing unit have played a pivotal role.
Ranked last in the league in penalty killing most of the season, the Barons killed off 43 of 44 penalties in their final 17 regular-season games. There were a couple of hiccups against Charlotte in a first-round series, but the penalty kill has played well for the most part.
In a 4-0 win Monday night in Game 3, Oklahoma City killed off all five penalties, including a double minor, i.e. four consecutive minutes with a teammate in the box.
The fundamentals of penalty killing include proper spacing to cut off passing lanes and an intuitive instinct to intercept a pass to send the puck down the rink, the only time icing is permitted.
“(Playing his role) speaks volumes about his character,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson of VandeVelde. “Last year, he was on the first line some. He takes pride in the role he has now, penalty killing or the last minute to try and preserve a win. He's a big guy who is strong with the puck.”
One key to being an effective penalty killer is the willingness to throw your body in front of a frozen, vulcanized three-inch rubber disk.
“Obviously you're going to have bumps and bruises if you block shots,” VandeVelde said. “You try to get in lanes and hit guys. And winning draws is also a huge part of it. If feels good when you win. Those bumps and bruises don't feel as bad.”
A fourth-round pick in the 2005 NHL Draft, VandeVelde, 26, has appeared in 28 NHL games the past three seasons but has spent the bulk of those three seasons with the Barons.
In 192 games with Oklahoma City, VandeVelde has scored 59 points. He's not an elite prospect, but his role is appreciated by coaches and teammates. Momentum shifts every time a penalty is killed, especially if the Barons blank an opponent on the power play for an entire game.
“He's a warrior,” Danis said. “He's willing to take hits and block shots. He's the type of guy that's in position to be the first guy to get a rebound to clear it, throw the puck into the corner or take a hit. Vandy is someone we can rely on.”
VandeVelde, from Moorhead, Minn., has spent most of his pro career in Oklahoma City after playing four years at North Dakota. He's been part of all three Barons playoff teams.
Last year's team was the No. 1 seed and reached the Western Conference finals before losing to Toronto.
This year's team finished 13-3-3 the final six weeks just to get in the playoffs the next to last day of the regular season. The Barons surged to the No. 5 seed.
“We're clicking right now,” VandeVelde said. “This team reminds me a lot of last year. Everyone knows their roles. Everyone is buying in. We try to outwork teams every night. That was kind of our motto last year and we're carrying it over to this year.
“If we just play simple and hard, the talent will come out, the skill will come out. Goals will come if everyone is doing their job and pulling on the rope. ... If our penalty kill is successful our team will be successful.”
STARS AT BARONS
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Cox Convention Center
Tickets: Starting as low as $11, they are available at the box office or by calling (405) 232-4625.
Radio: KXXY-FM 96.1
Scouting report: The Barons own a 2-1 lead in the AHL Western Conference second-round best-of-7 series against the top-seeded Texas Stars, the Dallas Stars' Triple-A affiliate that plays in the Austin area. ... The Barons posted a 4-0 win in Game 3 on Monday night. Toni Rajala, Anton Lander, Mark Arcobello and C.J. Stretch scored goals against Stars goaltender Cristopher Nilstorp, who previously hadn't allowed more than two goals in a game in the playoffs. Nilstorp has compiled a 1.90 goals-against average with .948 save percentage in the playoffs. OKC goaltender Yann Danis has a 2.24 GAA and .935 save percentage in the playoffs. And that includes a six-goal game in the first round against Charlotte. ... Rajala, Arcobello, Teemu Hartikainen and captain Josh Green all have 10 playoff points to rank in the top 10 in the AHL. Arcobello has scored a goal in all three games in the series. ... Kevin Connauton (five points) leads the Stars in scoring in the playoffs. ... OKC outshot the Stars 31-30 on Monday, the first time in the series the Barons outshot Texas.