Why you should care
Because fewer power play opportunities mean they’re that much more important.
Patrice Bergeron knew the drill. Near the end of the second period of Boston’s Game 4 shutout of the Carolina Hurricanes that would send them to the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins’ 33-year-old center took a pass directly in front of the goal and hammered the puck into the net during a 5-on-4 power-play opportunity. If he made it look easy, it’s because, for him, it has been: Bergeron leads all players this NHL postseason in power-play goals, with six.
In fact, the Bruins have netted the most power-play goals of any team in the playoffs, with 17. Right behind them are their Cup Final opponent, the St. Louis Blues, with 12.
And yet, for power-play goals in the contemporary NHL, it’s not the quantity; it’s the quality. Scoring soared league-wide this season. NHL teams averaged 3.01 goals per game in the regular season, rising above three for the first time in more than a decade. But it’s not due to penalties or special teams play:
Power-play goals accounted for 19 percent of NHL scoring this season, the lowest percentage since 1972–73.
This comes even though power-play efficiency is at one of the highest rates of the past three decades. Still, the rise in scoring came mostly from 5-on-5 play. By regular season’s end, 78 percent of the league’s scoring came at even strength, the highest since 1977–78.
And yet as the series gets set to begin Monday night, the Boston Bruins’ and St. Louis Blues’ power-play units will ultimately decide this year’s Stanley Cup champion.
Why the sharp decline in power-play opportunities? In hockey, penalties are not so cut-and-dry as “player involuntarily commits an infraction and goes to the box.” There’s strategy involved; you may hear the term “good penalties” on a broadcast. But teams right now simply prefer to deploy their penalty kill unit as little as possible. “Teams are scared to death to go man down, so there’s been a concerted effort to at least cut down, if not eliminate, as many power-play opportunities as possible,” says NESN broadcaster Dale Arnold.
That’s because, with a 19.78 percent success rate, the power play was lethal this year, the second-best mark since 1989–90. An infrequent element of the game is still a make-or-break one, especially when it comes to the playoffs. Consider Boston’s incredible 34 percent power-play efficiency in the postseason. It’s the second-best mark in league history for a team that advanced past the second round of the playoffs, after the 1981 New York Islanders (37.8).
This is where the Blues fall away — sharply. They convert just 19.5 percent of their power-play chances. “Boston’s power play and penalty kill is decidedly better than St. Louis’,” Arnold says, “which is one of the reasons they’ve got a real leg up.”
Some teams’ philosophy is that it’s better to save a goal than score a goal on special teams, and as a result, those coaches focus on building a deadly penalty kill. But the teams who have deked their way into the playoffs have featured a common strength: a coach, like the Bruins’ Bruce Cassidy, who understands just how crucial the power play is when it comes to hoisting the Cup.
Cassidy and his like-minded peers often feature just one defenseman and four forwards in their top power-play unit, an aggressive move that belies the importance of power-play efficiency for a Cup contender. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can pitch in, so it’s not like we have to have [our best players] to win. But your best players are your best players,” Cassidy said in a May press conference, noting that with their top power-play unit, the Bruins are “generally going to be a tougher team to beat.”
“If you look at Bruce Cassidy’s coaching résumé, what people will tell you is that he is particularly adept at the power play,” Arnold said. “If you look realistically at where this [Bruins] team stands right now, four games away from winning a Cup, a lot of it has to do with special teams.”
The Bruins and Blues are surprisingly comparable Final teams, as they enjoy similar strengths. Both use heavy forechecking, an aggressive style of defense. Both use and get production from all four of their lines. And Boston and St. Louis have both been carried by strong goal-tending, always a necessity in the NHL postseason.
But a deadly power play has proved to be the playoff difference-maker, despite its regular-season scarcity. Of the 16 squads that made the Stanley Cup playoffs, 10 ranked in the league’s top 12 in power-play efficiency. So while opportunities may remain low in coming seasons, expect teams to “desperately try to take advantage of those opportunities,” predicts Arnold.
And nowhere is that desperation more acute than when the Cup is in sight.