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Special teams, a playoff myth or necessity?

TAMPA – Once upon a time, there was a power play that was the best in all the land. The Wizard of Kucher-Ov ruled over that power play wielding his magic wand with a skill envied by those fortunate to witness this rare magician.

But, alas, it was still the regular season and power plays were plentiful.

What if power plays, lo and behold, disappear come playoff time? After all, doesn’t this chapter of the fairy tale say that officials pocket their whistles at this time of year? Even so, how difficult will it be to magically put the puck behind defensive-minded playoff teams?

The answers are: yes and no, and difficult, respectively.

  • No. There have actually been more power play opportunities in the playoffs. Power play opportunities actually are just slightly higher than regular season. The opportunities were 3.2 per postseason game vs. 3.0 for the regular season from 2016-2022, according to Cam Charron, a writer and hockey research and development analyst.
  • Yes. The reason it seems like there are less opportunities is that after the fourth game, opportunities do decrease. In other words, officials do call less penalties as the series goes on.
  • Difficult. With the Lightning owning the top power play in the league at 29-percent, this is something to keep in mind. Due to the desperation, parity, and goaltending during the playoffs, and, as a team goes deeper, defense is king of the castle.

If we were to peer into our crystal ball, it may show that it’s actually more valuable to have the Lightning’s penalty kill, which ranks fifth in the league at 83.2-percent.  

Here’s a quote from Lightning head coach Guy Boucher to NBC Sports during the 2011 Eastern Conference Final again Boston:

“We lost to Boston. We had an outstanding power play, and it was making us win games. We get into the seventh game, and we didn’t get one single power play, and Boston was at about 3.5-percent power play the entire playoffs, and they won the Stanley Cup.”

In the last ten years, only two teams did not have a regular season penalty kill percentage ranked in the top half of the league. Pittsburgh (2017) and Vegas (last year) ranked 20th and 19th, respectively (per Daily Faceoff). Pittsburgh’s percentage in the playoffs increased to 83.6-percent. Vegas’ percentage remained low at only 71.7-percent, which is surprising.

 So, why do you still need an outstanding penalty kill if the officials make less calls later in the playoff series? You need it to get to the final rounds, first of all. And even if they later ignore interference calls, for example, the glaring tripping/high sticking calls and bench minors/delay of games will be called. If the Lightning is on the right side of these calls, then the power play is a sword it knows it has in their sheath.

Per Boucher, “It’s just because the playoffs are about paying the price. They’re about desperation. And there’s a lot of that on penalty kills. It’s a lot easier to destroy something than to build something.”

Time to sharpen the special teams’ swords to kill the penalties.

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