You get a power play, and you get a power play, and you get a power play!
If there is a central theme to the opening week of the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s that there have been more penalties called than we’re used to at this time of year.
Clubs were notified before the postseason that the intention was to maintain the regular season’s officiating standard into the playoffs, to which they would have been forgiven had they responded by rolling their eyes.
Referees, however, have been calling tight games, for the most part.
Via TSN stats guru Kevin Gibson on Friday morning, here are the number of power-play opportunities handed out through the opening week of the playoffs to this point compared to last year.
|Year||Power-play opportunities||Games played|
Veteran Flames coach Darryl Sutter noted after the very first night of the playoffs, before this own team had even played yet, how many penalties had called Monday night in the first day of the playoff action. Others have noticed, too.
“There’s been more penalties than I expected in the beginning of the playoffs, but we all know special teams are huge come playoff time, ” Oilers penalty killer Derek Ryan said after Game 2 on Wednesday night. “You only get so many power plays. We want our power play to be lethal. If they’re not scoring, they’re creating momentum for us right now, which is good. The penalty kill’s been doing the same. It’s creating momentum by killing it off. ”
Special teams have been a major storyline of the Kings-Oilers series so far, Edmonton is 4-for-8 on the power play, and have even added a short-handed goal. Meanwhile, Los Angeles, which was 27th with the man advantage during the regular season, has been blanked on eight power-play opportunities so far. The Kings hoped to stay out of the penalty box and play most of these games at 5-on-5 where they match up better with the Oilers.
If the officiating standard continues to be upheld, one would assume that would be an edge for the higher skilled teams with lethal power plays. The top 10 power plays in the regular season, in order, were the Maple Leafs, Blues, Oilers, Rangers, Panthers / Predators (tied), Avalanche, Lightning, Canucks and Flames. Conversely, there are only two bottom-10 power-play teams in the playoffs: Washington (23rd) and Los Angeles (27th).
So far, as of Friday morning, the Oilers lead the league with four power-play goals followed by the Rangers and Blues at three apiece through two games for each team.
With all that said, a handful of nights does not make an entire postseason. I suspect we’ll see fewer penalty calls in deciding games or when we get deeper in the playoffs. But in the here and now, it’s something teams must adjust to.
If you remember after the playoffs last season, there was a sense, which was justified, that the NHL had to crack down on cross-checking. That is exactly what the league did this season. In fact, according to the league, there have been 15 more cross-checking penalties through the first four nights than there were last year.
“I guess the numbers are up but I would say two things: first, remember we have a new standard on cross-checking and we are a lot stricter there,” one league official said Thursday. “Second, lot of penalties after the whistles so far. If you were to extrapolate those two things out of the numbers, I would venture to guess we are about normal. ”
That same official, by the way, circled back Thursday night during the Penguins-Rangers game and noted three cross-checking penalties in that game.
On another note, there have also been a number of lopsided games so far in the playoffs, which normally leads to some frustration penalties, too. As one front-office executive pointed out to me Friday morning, he’s seen more penalties for stuff after the whistle. Which again, is a good thing.
There’s normally a little more piss and vinegar in the first round between teams, they come out roaring out of the gates with a higher level of physicality. It tends to level off a bit as the playoffs go on and the grind of the post-season takes hold on players.
I take you back to the GMs meeting in late March in Palm Beach, Florida. The league via director of officiating Stephen Walkom had its usual officiating update with GMs. After the meeting, here’s what two veteran GMs said which has stayed with me:
“We’re looking for consistency,” GM Predators David Poile said on March 28 after Day 1 of the GM meetings. “We want the officials to be at the top of their game. We want to know what penalties are.
“We use these forums in these meetings so that if there’s inconsistency we can ask Stephen about it… but if you’re thinking there’s going to be any big change, I do not think anybody is asking for that.”
“Yes, we want consistency,” Penguins GM Ron Hextall said that day. “I think the players want consistency. Certainly the coaches and us as managers, too. We want the same standard every game. I know it’s hard. But there’s inconsistencies and sometimes it’s hard to know what’s a penalty and what’s not a penalty.
“In saying that, I know how hard a job it is. But that’s certainly what we strive for is consistency. ”
Again, it’s only opening week, but I think we’ve seen some level of consistency so far. We all hammer officiating all the time in this league. So, let’s point it out when they had a decent week. Will we feel the same way in a month? We can revisit it then.
Some other playoff thoughts
We’ve already had a triple-overtime game in the opening week as Pittsburgh outlasted the Rangers Tuesday night. It reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a team executive pondering the future of the NHL playoff overtime and wondering if the NHL’s new US TV partners would eventually put pressure on the league to reconsider how overtime is played out. Long playoff overtime games are not good for TV programming. US TV networks also do not really sell overtime periods for advertising, which is why you see fewer commercials. The bottom line is this: the US networks want games to end (although it should be noted ratings spiked in triple overtime the other night on ESPN).
Which has some people wondering if three on three overtime is ever going to be pondered in the future for the playoffs. Do you go five-on-five in the first overtime, four-on-four in the second overtime and three-on-three in triple overtime? Or * gulp *, five-on-five then straight to three-on-three for the second overtime?
I do not want any of it to change. From a purist perspective, traditional five-on-five overtime is such a part of NHL history and we’ve all got our favorite moments. Pat LaFontaine’s quadruple OT goal on Easter in April 1987 is one of my favorites.
Personally, I love it the way it is. But I get the TV side of it. I guess I’m relaying this to at least plant the seed that if the day ever comes over the next several years, don’t say you weren’t warned.
The NHL Draft Lottery
The draft lottery goes Tuesday (6:30 pm ET, ESPN and Sportsnet). The original plan was to have it on May 16 in-between rounds which in one sense makes more sense because it would get more attention away from all the first-round playoff games.
I’m told, however, when the league shared this with general managers in late March, GMs expressed that they’d be at the IIHF men’s world championship in Finland around that time and that it did not make sense to have some of those draft lottery GMs up at 1am or so joining remotely via Finland. So, the decision was made to push it up to May 11 before GMs traveled to Finland.
I suspect next season we’ll see the draft lottery in between the first and second round, or in the second round.
Thoughts from Edmonton
I really enjoyed my time in Edmonton opening week. That fan base is dialled in. Almost every person I saw walking around town was wearing their Oilers sweater going to work. The fans are ready to explode if their team can finally get on a playoff run. Wednesday’s 6-0 win was a good start.
It was rather noticeable how the Oilers upgraded their physicality in Game 2 on Wednesday night, led by their superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl who threw their weight around which in turn seemed to embolden the rest of the roster to follow their lead. Zack Kassian and Josh Archibald certainly led that way with some big hits, not surprisingly, but it was throughout the lineup. One thing Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft said post-game stuck with me, that aside from the fact it’s the kind of series-long investment every playoff team hopes to build up on the opposition, the physicality from the Oilers also stemmed from being forced into it somewhat by having to play through the Kings’ defending.
The Kings at five-on-five play a 1-3-1 when defending teams breaking out of their zone, and it was rather effective in their Game 1 win over Edmonton. But the Oilers clearly adjusted in Game 2 and put pucks in places where they had a decent chance for retrievals which necessitated winning puck battles along the way. It also meant that the Kings’ young blue line core got pounded all night long. They really got battered by Oilers forecheckers. It’s the kind of thing that later in the series can have an effect.
I was chatting with a rival front office executive Thursday and he was commenting on how focused a team has to be to play through that Kings’ 1-3-1 defending. “If you’re not ready for it or you’re arrogant about how you’re going to play through it, the Kings will kill you with it, ” he observed. “You really need a game plan and need to executive it. It’s obviously doable, but the Kings have caught a lot of teams napping on it this year. ”
As I said, the Oilers were absolutely ready for it in Game 2. Let’s see how the Kings adjust now Friday night. The cat and mouse game between old pals Woodcroft and Todd McLellan has been fun to watch already.
Everyone involved will of course deny it, but believe me when I say you could feel the relief in the Edmonton market with that Oilers win Wednesday night, both within the organization and throughout its rabid fan base. It put an end to a seven-game playoff losing streak. These players are human. It was weighing somewhere in their brains no matter what anyone says. A 2-0 series deficit after getting swept by Winnipeg last year would have been a total gong show to deal with heading into Game 3 in Los Angeles.
It’s just one win for Edmonton, the Kings got their road split after all, but the burden lifted off the Oilers, especially after such a convincing victory, I believe will give this team wind in their sails now. It’s the kind of win that really helps in terms of parking what happened in 2020 and ’21, losing to Chicago and Winnipeg, and now just operating in the here and now. I really believe now the Oilers can confidently focus on being the team that’s been so consistent since Woodcroft took over Feb. 10.
(Top photo: Brett Holmes / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)