They have been called the most exciting plays in hockey and among the most exciting in all of sports. Certainly, they are among the most challenging--the one-on-one confrontations between a skater with the puck and the goaltender, with no other players on the ice.
Penalty shots are also rare in the National Hockey League, which perhaps adds to their mystique.
In the 20,360 games played through last season in the NHL since penalty shots became part of the sport in the 1934-35 season, only 354 have been awarded, or about one every 58 games.
Only 16 have been attempted in the playoffs and a goal has never been scored on a penalty shot in the Stanley Cup finals.
The Kings have been awarded only 14 penalty shots in their 21 seasons in the NHL and have faced only 13.
Among their current players, only Luc Robitaille has been involved in a penalty shot while playing for the Kings. His goal on a penalty shot last week provided the difference in a 2-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets.
Bob Bourne attempted one when he was with the New York Islanders, Bob Carpenter tried one when he was with the Washington Capitals and goaltender Rollie Melanson faced two when he was with the Minnesota North Stars.
But Coach Mike Murphy played 12 seasons in the NHL without attempting a penalty shot. And assistant coach Phil Myre, a former goaltender who played 14 seasons in the NHL, never faced one.
Rogie Vachon, the Kings' general manager, said that because goals are such a precious commodity in the NHL, officials are reluctant to award penalty shots.
Not true, said referee Dan Marouelli. In fact, Marouelli said that John McCauley, the NHL's director of officiating, has issued a directive to the officials saying, in Marouelli's words, "a penalty shot is a very exciting part of a game and, should the opportunity present itself, we're to assess that penalty."
But, said Marouelli, opportunities rarely present themselves.
"Fouls that warrant the penalty to be called just don't happen that often in a game," he said.
When they do, Vachon said, there is no greater challenge for a player. The former King goaltender faced six penalty shots in 16 NHL seasons--and stopped all of them.
"The goalie has the advantage because the skater has the puck, so he's usually the one who's going to make the first mistake," Vachon said.
Statistically, he's right. Goaltenders have stopped about 60% of the penalty shots attempted in the NHL. Including 3 this season, 142 regular-season goals have been scored on penalty shots, but 216 penalty shots have been stopped, including 1 this season.
Vachon said he always stayed put while facing a penalty shot.
"A lot of goalies like to come out and challenge the shooter," he said. "But I liked to stay deep in the crease. I gave him more to shoot at, but I felt I could control where he was going to shoot. I'd give him a corner and then when he put his head down to shoot, I'd take it away from him.
"It was not great technique--I wouldn't recommend it to a kid--but it worked well for me."
Penalty shots apparently were the brainchild of former NHL President Frank Calder, who presented his idea to the league's Board of Governors in a letter during the fall of 1934.
In response, General Manager Conn Smythe of the Toronto Maple Leafs wrote: "I believe the penalty shot is going to be spectacular."
At that time, the rule required that the shot be taken from inside a 10-foot circle 38 feet from the goal. The goaltender could not move more than a foot in front of the net, and the team awarded the shot could designate anybody not serving a penalty to shoot it.
Four seasons later, a penalty shot line was introduced. It was 30 feet out from the goal and the player taking the shot could skate toward the goal, but had to shoot before passing the line.
It wasn't until the 1941-42 season that the player awarded the penalty shot could skate right into the goaltender and shoot from point-blank range.
In the 1934-35 season, a league-record 29 penalty shots were awarded, but the figure fell off drastically after that. Seven times since, an entire season has passed without a penalty shot being awarded.
Until Wayne Connelly of the North Stars beat Terry Sawchuk of the Kings on April 9, 1968, a goal had never been scored on a penalty shot in the playoffs and none had even been attempted in the playoffs in 24 years.
In recent seasons, though, penalty shots have been awarded more frequently. When 25 were attempted last season, it was the most since the rule was adopted 53 years ago.
"I think a lot of it has to do with educating some of the younger players," Marouelli said of the increase in recent seasons. "I think a lot of players aren't aware of the rules."
Most often, a penalty shot is awarded when an offensive player, having no opponent other than the goaltender to beat on a breakaway, is fouled from behind.
That's what happened last week to Robitaille, who was hooked from behind by Winnipeg's Dave Ellett as he charged the net.