Chris Higgins and the Art of the (Penalty) Kill

Chris Higgins is a very good hockey player. We have seen him thrive as a Canuck since coming over at the 2011 trade deadline, and the team rewarded his strong play with a $10 million contract extension last week. Higgins is currently out with an injury (somewhere on his lower body we have been told), which should keep him out of the lineup for an undetermined period of time. How’s that for a report?

He is the type of player who can have no shots on goal, no goals, and no assists, and still have a strong game. Don’t get me wrong, for $2.5 million per season (starting next year), the Canuck are hoping/expecting 15-20 goals a season. But Higgins does all of the "little things" at such an elite level, that he makes life a lot easier for his linemates and teammates.

Against the Oilers last week, his ability to excel at said "little things" was on full display.

Higgins finished the game with one goal, six shots, four takeaways, and 19:11 in total ice time. He instantly clicked on a line with Derek Roy, and the two dominated Edmonton’s second line (centered by Sam Gagner). What makes Higgins so good is his chameleon-like ability to change his game to his surroundings. With Roy, he simply found a way to skate fast and get open. Roy found him on numerous occasions for high quality scoring chances (Higgins generated eight scoring chances, according to Dimitri’s game recap).

But it was his work on the penalty kill that was just as – if not more – impressive. Higgins gave Edmonton’s top skill players fits all game long with his speed, tenacity, and active stick. Let’s look at a few instances of it.

It is hard to demonstrate a smart hockey play in the snapshot format, but here goes nothing. Higgins spent the previous five seconds hounding Gagner (89) up the ice, and he (along with Kevin Bieksa) force Gagner wide into a two-on-two situation. Any time you are on the penalty kill, getting an even-up (one-on-one, two-on-two) situation is a great thing.

Higgins proceeds to knock two Oilers off of the puck before spinning and firing it down the ice. One for one.

Later in the game. Different penalty kill. Same play. Higgins is all over the puck. Look how aggressive the Canucks play this. They (and most teams) are at their best when they are extremely aggressive, but to play that way you need to have smart players with great sticks (and the four Canucks in the above frame – Tanev, Bieksa, Higgins, and Burrows, are all examples of that).

Higgins and Burrows force Jordan Eberle into attempting a very low percentage play. Edmonton’s three left wingers remain open.

After clearing the zone, Higgins foils another Edmonton zone entry attempt with a great stick. He cleanly intercepts Hall’s attempted pass and fires it down the zone again. Edmonton was pretty brutal at moving the puck in this game, but a lot of that is because of Higgins and Vancouver’s penalty kill.

Higgins clearing the zone (like a boss). Again, another great example of Vancouver’s aggressiveness. Three Canucks and two Oilers involved in the play. 

And one more clear for good measure.

This is a very selective look at Higgins (as most snapshots are, especially in a sport as fast-paced as hockey). He has struggled a bit in 2013 when put with less skilled linemates (relative to previous performances as a Canuck, at least). And he isn’t always this sharp on the kill. But his impressive performance against Edmonton highlighted why the Canucks were happy to give him both term and money for the next four years. He’s the perfect "sixth man" for this team (a reference to terrific bench players in the NBA). Is Higgins a second line winger? With second line quality linemates, most definitely.

On the Canucks, it doesn’t really matter where he fits in. Scorer, checker, left winger, right winger. He’s done it all. The goals and points are great, but its the little things that make him such an effective two-way forward. And the Canucks will need him at 100% if they have any hopes of repeating 2011’s postseason run. 

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