Power down? Why power plays are less successful in playoffs
Having a potent power play is certainly useful in getting to the playoffs. Once there, maybe not as much.
Eight of the top 11 power-play teams in the playoffs this year lost in the first round, and the Ottawa Senators pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins to double overtime in Game 7 despite going 1 for 20 in the Eastern Conference final. It doesn't hurt to have a good power play, as the Penguins showed in getting some big goals with the man advantage, but it's far less important in the chase for the Stanley Cup than strong 5-on-5 play.
Contrary to popular opinion, referees don't swallow their whistles in the playoffs - at least not this spring. Through three rounds, power-play opportunities are up to 6.22 per game from 5.97 during the regular season
But power-play goals are coming less frequently in the playoffs - an average of 17 percent, down from 19.1 percent in the regular season. The Penguins buck that trend with a success rate of 25 percent going into Game 1 of the Cup final against Nashville on Monday night.
Senators coach Guy Boucher has a theory on why power plays are less successful in the playoffs: ''It's a lot easier to destroy something than it is to build something.''
''Guys are so dedicated to defending: They're in the lanes and blocking shots with a much higher percentage,'' Boucher said. ''It's like there's five goalies out there, and it's very tough to manufacture goals. ... The playoffs are about paying the price. They're about desperation. And there's a lot of that on penalty kills.''
Blocked shots are part of that, as the Penguins average 18 a game. Penalty kills are also far more aggressive in the playoffs as defenders get their bodies and sticks in shooting and passing lanes.
Boucher recalled having a strong power play while coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011 and losing in Game 7 of the East final to the Boston Bruins, who scored on just 11.4 percent of their power plays and won the Cup. No Cup champion in the salary cap era that began in 2005-06 has led the playoffs in power-play percentage.
''The power play, it's a difficult thing to maintain,'' Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler said. ''It can get really hot, or it can go really cold. And when it goes cold, it's tough to kind of work your way out of that.''
The West champion Nashville Predators have killed 88.1 percent of opposing power plays and would follow the pattern of recent champions as they've converted on just 14.9 percent of their own. In reaching the Cup final , it's no coincidence that the Predators have outscored opponents 37-23 at 5-on-5, with defensemen playing an important role.
For Nashville, it's all about timely stops on the penalty kill and goals on the power play.
''Power plays and when you're short-handed, they make all the difference,'' defenseman Ryan Ellis said. ''You might get one or two chances the whole game and if you can go 1 for 2 or 2 for 2, that's a big boost. If you can kill off whatever chances they get, I think special teams are probably one of the biggest factors in winning in the playoffs.''
Boucher pointed out that one factor in penalty-kill success in the playoffs is that goaltenders are at their best, ''their most alert.'' That's certainly the case for the Predators' Pekka Rinne, though his save percentage on opposing power plays is just .906.
In just five games, Pittsburgh's Matt Murray has a .962 save percentage on the penalty kill. Couple that with the Penguins' success on the power play and they're four victories away from being the first repeat Cup champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
''Our power play has won a lot of games for us throughout the course of the regular season and through the playoffs,'' Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. ''They've been a very consistent group throughout the course of this playoffs. Even when they don't score, they build momentum for our team. So power plays are few and far between in the playoffs. And the deeper you go, the less you get. At least that's what it seems to be. When you have the opportunities and you can capitalize ... it helps your team win games.''
Or maybe Senators goalie Craig Anderson has the right approach: ''You have to hope for the best, hope you're scoring goals, but you have to expect the worst.''
AP Hockey Writer Greg Beacham in and AP freelance writer Jim Diamond contributed.
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