Why Special Teams Play Is So Critical in the Pursuit of the Stanley Cup

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2013

May 24, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) wins a face-off against Ottawa Senators center Jean-Gabriel Pageau (44) during the second period in game five of the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Pittsburgh Penguins won 6-2 to close out the series. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Seizing the opportunity with a man advantage or killing a penalty when trying to hold a slim lead can often be the difference between advancing in the Stanley Cup playoffs and going home thinking about what might have been.

Coaches will have their teams practice their power play and penalty kill in nearly every practice. It's about taking advantage of opportunities, gaining momentum or stopping the opponent in their tracks.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have moved into the Eastern Conference Final, and they would appear to have an excellent chance of surviving against the Boston Bruins and moving on to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Penguins have the best power play of all of the teams in the postseason, and they are third overall in penalty killing.

Jarome Iginla, who arrived in Pittsburgh in a deal with the Calgary Flames prior to the April 3 trade deadline, noticed how everyone on the Penguins power-play and penalty kill units take pride in their jobs.

“Penalty kill, power play, guys are doing a lot of different things that lead to success on this team,” Iginla told thehockeywriters.com. “When I got here, I noticed right away that everybody enjoys their different roles and takes pride in them. That’s easier said than done sometimes.”

Iginla pointed to one of the factors that is associated with success at any job. The person doing that job has to feel like it's important, valued and at least somewhat enjoyable.

That's where the head coach comes into play. In the Penguins' case, Dan Bylsma has figured out which players perform best in all roles. He allows his players to take pride in their jobs and feel good about what they are doing.

In some cases, killing a penalty can be looked at as a job for a role player who is not as skilled offensively as his teammates, which is why he's killing a penalty.

Coaches who don't value their role players as much as their stars may develop problems of resentment and anger later on in the locker room.

Teams have been able to overcome slumps on the power play in the past. The Los Angeles Kings won last year's Stanley Cup even though they were 12th on the power play (of 16 teams) with a 12.8 percent success ratio.

The previous year, the Boston Bruins struggled dramatically with the man advantage and were 14th of the 16 playoff teams with the power play. Despite their difficulties, the Bruins won the 2011 Stanley Cup.

However, both teams were much better in the penalty kill department. The Kings ranked second last year, while the Bruins were sixth in that category in 2011.

Obviously, five-on-five play is very important in determining the strongest teams in the league. The Bruins and Kings were the best teams in five-on-five situation the past two years in the postseason.

This season, the Penguins have the best five-on-five rating with a 1.43 ratio, giving them a slight advantage over the Bruins and the Kings.

However, the Pens have a significant advantage over the Bruins in both power play (28.3 percent for Pittsburgh to 21.9 for Boston) and penalty kill (89.7 percent vs. 81.1), and that may be the difference in the Eastern Conference Final series.

If the Penguins and Bruins play evenly in five-on-five situations, the Bruins are going to have to show quite a bit of improvement on their special teams if they are going to extend this series and possibly register the upset.

That's why many are making the Penguins the favorites in the series. They are the best power-play team and a dominant force on the penalty kill.

That's a formidable position for any team with Stanley Cup aspirations to be in.