Thursday, June 13, 2013
Why the low-wattage playoff power plays?
By Pierre LeBrun
CHICAGO -- Who took the "power" out of power play?
The man advantage sure hasn't lived up to its name the past few years, at least when it comes to having an impact for championship teams.
The past two Stanley Cup winners, the Boston Bruins in 2011 and Los Angeles Kings in 2012, struggled on the power play, but it didn't at all prevent them from winning it all.
And regardless of whether the Bruins or the Chicago Blackhawks win this season, it sure won't be because of their power play.
So what gives?
"I really think the penalty-killing units have improved a lot," star Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, a key cog on both the penalty kill and power play, said in French on Thursday. "And honestly, I just think there's less room out there. I also think it's more than just one thing, there's a number of reasons why it's happened.
"But in the playoffs, the focus is really on defense. It's a cliché, but teams that win championships know how to play defensively and teams continue to improve in that area."
The Bruins right now are at a 16.7 percent success rate (8-for-48), ninth best out of the 16 playoff teams; the Hawks have struggled even more, going 7-for-54 (13 percent).
It just follows the recent trend. That 2011 Bruins team was a woeful 11.4 percent (10-for-88), while last year's Kings checked in at 12.8 percent (12-for-94), 14th among playoff teams.
"But you know what? In the deciding game last year we scored three goals on it, so believe me it can still score big goals for you at important times," Kings head coach Darryl Sutter told ESPN.com over the phone Thursday. "But there's a few things. One, fewer penalties called in the playoffs so therefore fewer chances.
"The other thing is, you practice the power play so much during the regular season, and then you get to the playoffs and your top players need some time off between games, so you don't practice the power play quite as much. That's a factor."
By not practicing it as much, perhaps the power play gets out of rhythm. What matters the most, though, is that the Kings last year still won the special-teams battle when it mattered most, just as Boston did against Vancouver in 2011.
It's not how many power-play goals you score, it’s whether you score more than the other team.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story, either. Some power plays still generate momentum even if there’s no goal scored, as long as the team threatened on them. Players can feed off that when 5-on-5 play resumes.
Patrice Bergeron has some ideas, shared by others, about why power-play production is down during the postseason.
"Yes, you talk a lot about that as a team, just making sure you get as many good looks as possible so that it carries over,” said Sutter. "We almost talk more about that than actually scoring."
On the flip side, a power play that doesn't generate anything at all, sort of like what Chicago has struggled with recently, can deflate a team for a few shifts.
Ray Ferraro made his living on the power play during his NHL playing career, and the TSN analyst said the concern is that if you go too long struggling on the man advantage it may affect you mentally.
"You have to be careful not to let an ineffective power play seep into the rest of your game and frustrate you," Ferraro said Thursday.
And for the Hawks, that’s the danger right now if they let their power-play woes continue. Their 5-on-3 power play in Game 1 versus Boston was as bad as we've seen in a while in that situation. No creativity, the players way too stationary.
"Our power play in the last series and last night hasn't shown the production that's needed or is going to be necessary going forward," Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville said Thursday. "We're still going to have to rely on it at some point to ignite us. That's what we're talking about.
"We're disappointed with the 5-on-3 last night. Want to make sure you don't lose the momentum of the game."
"I know in 2010, we had a great power play, it was huge to helping us win," Kane said Thursday. "We've had stretches throughout the postseason where we've moved it around pretty well. Sometimes you just can't find the back of the net. I think maybe another reason is it seems power plays are down throughout the year and in the postseason for whatever reason. When you do get the man advantage, you're not in a complete rhythm when you get out there.
"For whatever reason, the past two teams to win, even us and Boston this year, haven't had great power plays. It's something we want to improve and feel we can help our game even more if we can keep it going."
Quenneville is in the same frame of mind as Bergeron. Give credit where credit is due, said the Hawks coach.
"I don't know if it's the power plays that are struggling or the penalty killing has been more effective or efficient," Quenneville said. "You look at teams, Boston when they won it, their penalty killing was outstanding. Special teams are always critical. I think they can make the difference."
Indeed, another trend linking the 2011 Bruins, 2012 Kings and both Boston and Chicago clubs this year is an excellent penalty kill.
The Hawks are first in the playoffs at a remarkable 93.4 percent rate, having killed 57 of 61 power plays
The Bruins are fifth at 87.3 percent, killing 48 of 55 PPs
The 2012 Kings tied for tops in the playoffs at 92.1 percent, killing 70 of 76 PPs
The 2011 Bruins were at 84.4 percent, killing 81 of 96 power plays, but noticeably improved in that area as the playoffs went along, famously capping their year by shutting down a loaded Vancouver power play in the Cup finals.
I vividly recall a conversation with Ken Hitchcock before last season’s playoffs in which the St. Louis Blues head coach made the point that he has always believed the power play was overrated in terms of its impact on postseason games. Hitchcock felt 5-on-5 and the penalty kill were what really mattered.
The rest of the coaching fraternity is clearly on the same page.
When I asked Bruins coach Claude Julien about this topic Thursday at his off-day news conference, he sounded like a man capable of teaching a university class on the subject.
"I think if you look at teams sometimes that have great power-play percentages in the playoffs, they get them early in the playoffs," began Julien. "But as the playoffs move on, you do so much homework on the other team's power play. Like for us, we could go back three rounds, looking at Chicago's power play, and vice versa. Plus, the more you play them, the more you make adjustments as you go on.
"I think it's a normal trend, has absolutely nothing to do with the team not being able to score more than the penalty kill doing a great job," he continued. "When you see guys like [injured center Gregory] Campbell throwing himself in front of a shot
like he did, you're seeing guys go above and beyond what they do in the regular season to prevent a goal.
"To me, it's a normal thing. Even when we played Vancouver, they had such a good power play. By the time they got to the final, they couldn't score either. Yeah, you give your team credit. But also the fact that you've been able to scout them and play them, and just as the game goes on is another thing. To me, I've always been one of those proponents, that more often your 5-on-5 play is what is going to decide a game.
"When you play 50 minutes or so 5-on-5, that should be more of a determining factor than six minutes on a power play," Julien concluded.