Who Has the Special Teams Advantage in Each 1st Round NHL Playoff Series?
How many playoff teams advance every year thanks to a key penalty kill or a timely power-play goal? The advantage a team secures in this game-within-the-game is often the difference-maker in an otherwise evenly-matched series. Who has the special teams advantage in this year's first round matchups?
Analytics can help answer that question. By looking at the topic from more than one angle, teams with very different styles can be compared.
This study uses the various percentages as well as both goal-based and shot-based data, each of which has been adjusted to a per-minute basis. The factors involved in these comparisons include:
- Power-play and penalty-killing percentages
- Goals-for and Goals-against average
- Shots attempted and/or allowed per two minutes
- Shooting and save percentages
Using these additional perspectives can shed some light on which teams were most effective this season on special teams. Let's begin!
All advanced statistics are via Extra Skater unless otherwise noted.
Colorado Avalanche over Minnesota Wild
When Colorado Has a Power Play
On the surface, it looks like Colorado has a huge advantage, boasting the fifth-best power-play percentage in the league (19.8 percent), while Minnesota sports the fourth-worst penalty kill (78.8 percent). The Avalanche also allowed only a single shorthanded goal, more than only the Predators.
But, when digging deeper, it is revealed that the Avalanche are actually third worst in the NHL in attempting just 2.76 shots per power play, while Minnesota allows just 2.91, the third fewest.
Colorado's success hinges not on creating more opportunities, but scoring on a higher portion of them. Colorado's 14.0 shooting percentage with the man advantage was sixth best in the NHL, while Minnesota's .858 save percentage was fourth worst.
The Avalanche certainly have a notable advantage here, but not as large as it would first appear.
When Minnesota Has a Power Play
The Minnesota Wild have a slightly below average power play, but Colorado has one of the least effective penalty kills among playoff teams.
While the Wild are one of only nine teams to have attempted fewer than three shots per two-minute power play, only four teams allowed more shots per minute on the penalty kill than Colorado. Those teams are Toronto, Buffalo, Florida and Washington, which isn't exactly good company.
In the end the Wild have a roughly league-average 17.9 power play percentage, and Colorado's 80.7 penalty-killing percentage is seventh worst. The numbers are probably slightly kind to each of them, giving Minnesota a small advantage.
Colorado has the edge here, but not by nearly as large a margin as is commonly believed.
A team that can consistently create opportunities is a more predictable power-play unit than one that relies on a better finishing rate. Even with this uncertainty, the Avalanche are still quite likely to enjoy a special teams advantage.
St. Louis Blues over Chicago Blackhawks
When St. Louis Has a Power Play
St. Louis' power play is above average, while Chicago's penalty kill is a little below.
Thanks to the third-best power-play shooting percentage in the league (14.9 percent), the Blues scored 7.33 goals per 60 minutes, which is fourth highest in the NHL. Their resulting 19.8 power-play percentage finished in a tight pack, just below fourth overall.
The Blues aren't among the best, though. Their 3.30 attempted shots per two minutes is closer to average, and their 2.32 shots on goal per two minutes is actually in the league's bottom third.
When Chicago Has a Power Play
While all their shot-based numbers were roughly about average, the Blackhawks squeezed into the top 10 with a solid 6.99 goals per 60 minutes on the power play and a decent 19.5 power-play percentage.
Chicago will however be facing one of the league's most effective penalty kills. The Blues allow just 4.89 goals per 60 minutes, second best in the NHL, just like their 85.7 penalty-killing percentage. They are also second best in allowing just 1.44 shots per two minutes.
St. Louis has the edge here.
The St. Louis Blues have potentially the league's best penalty kill, and an above-average power play. Chicago is hovering around league average on both special teams. The edge goes to St. Louis.
Dallas Stars over Anaheim Ducks
When Anaheim Has a Power Play
Both teams are just barely in the bottom third by almost any statistical measurement.
The Ducks scored 5.73 goals per 60 minutes on the power play, which is eighth lowest, and their 16.0 power-play percentage is ninth lowest. Their shot-based data is mostly around league average, but their 10.9 shooting percentage is eighth lowest.
As for Dallas, the Stars allowed 6.91 goals per 60 minutes, which is eighth worst, and their shot-based data was also in the bottom third. Their 81.4 penalty-killing percentage also ranked right near the top of the bottom third.
Let's call this one a tie.
When Dallas Has a Power Play
Dallas led the NHL by a wide margin, with 135 attempted shots on the power play, which was good for seventh on a per-minute basis. The problem was that the Stars scored on just 9.6 percent of their shots, better than only Vancouver and Florida.
The Stars consequently finished 23rd with a 15.9 power-play percentage, and 27th with 5.34 goals per 60 minutes with the man advantage.
As for the Ducks, they allowed 3.53 attempted shots per two minutes, the fifth most in the NHL. Only Phoenix, Toronto, Edmonton and Washington were higher. The good news for Anaheim is how few of those reached the net, just 1.70 per two minutes, roughly league average.
In the end Anaheim's 82.2 penalty killing percentage ranked 13th and, while the team's 6.57 goals per 60 minutes was higher than the league average, only two teams scored more than its 10 shorthanded goals, Carolina and Calgary.
This is also hard to call.
This one is almost too close to call. There are bound to be a lot of attempted shots when Dallas is on the power play, but will they go in?
Neither team really stands out on special teams, but if you force me to choose, I'll give the nod to the Stars because their power play is just a couple of good bounces away from being truly dangerous.
San Jose Sharks over Los Angeles Kings
When San Jose Has a Power Play
San Jose has historically had a strong power play, and looked to do so again this year. The Sharks were one of only three teams to land at least a shot a minute with the man advantage. Their 3.94 attempted shots per two minutes led the league by a wide margin.
Unfortunately for them, their 9.9 shooting percentage exceeds that of only three teams, Dallas, Vancouver and Florida. That's why their 6.33 goals per 60 minutes and 17.2 power-play percentage are both below league average.
As for the Kings, they are certainly a great defensive team overall, but their penalty kill is only a little better than league average in almost every statistical department.
When Los Angeles Has a Power Play
Los Angeles' power play has the same problem as San Jose's, but while being only about average in generating shots and opportunities.
The Kings also score on just 9.9 percent of their shots, but their far lower shot totals puts them near the league's basement overall. Their 15.1 power-play percentage is 27th and 5.15 goals per 60 minutes is 28th.
The Sharks, meanwhile, allow just 1.45 shots per two minutes, more than only St. Louis and Vancouver. Their 84.9 penalty-killing percentage is sixth, and their 5.48 goals-against average while killing penalties is seventh.
The Sharks should have a much easier time killing the Kings' power plays than vice versa.
Both teams struggle to convert with the man advantage, but San Jose is among the league leaders in creating shots and opportunities while Los Angeles is merely average. The Sharks have also been more effective killing penalties.
The advantage goes to the Sharks.
Boston Bruins over Detroit Red Wings
When Boston Has a Power Play
Boston has one of the league's most potent power plays.
The Bruins boast a 21.7 power-play percentage and scored 8.15 goals per 60 minutes, both the third highest in the NHL and second highest among playoff teams.
Boston has been successful with the man advantage by any metric. The Bruins are sixth with 3.52 attempted shots per two minutes, fifth with 1.90 shots on goal per two minutes and fifth with a 14.3 shooting percentage.
Detroit's 83.0 penalty-kill percentage ranks 12th, and they have a 5.97 goals against average, which is 10th.
When Detroit Has a Power Play
Detroit and Boston are well-matched when it's a Bruin heading to the penalty box.
The Red Wings' shot-based statistics are a little bit above average, but, overall, their 6.21 goals per 60 minutes and 17.7 power-play percentage are both a little bit below.
As for Boston, their 83.6 penalty-killing percentage ranks eighth, and both their 5.77 goals-against average and 3.09 attempted shots allowed per two minutes rank ninth.
The two teams have very similar penalty kills that hover near the league's top third.
Boston has one of the top power plays in the league and therefore earns the overall advantage in this series.
Montreal Canadiens over Tampa Bay Lightning
When Tampa Bay Has a Power Play
Tampa Bay's 2.67 attempted shots per two minutes is better than only the New Jersey Devils, and the team's 1.44 shots per two minutes is dead last.
The Lightning are quite fortunate to have a league-leading 15.3 shooting percentage on the power play. Or perhaps this is by design? Their overall power-play percentage is respectably ranked 13th with a roughly league average 6.60 goals-for average.
In Montreal, the Bolts are up against a top-four penalty kill, at least in terms of its 5.15 goals-against average and 87.2 penalty-killing percentage. The Habs' shot-based data is a little more modest, but their .895 save percentage is fifth best. In Montreal's case, the goalie really is their best penalty-killer.
When Montreal Has a Power Play
It's surprising that Montreal's power play isn't among the league's most effective, with power-play specialists like P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov manning the point.
Montreal's 5.74 goals-for average is in the bottom third, as are its shot-based statistics. Their 17.2 power-play percentage escapes the bottom third, but just barely.
The Canadiens are fortunate to be lining up against one of only six teams with a goals-against average over 7.00, only one other of which made the playoffs (Minnesota Wild).
Shot-based data doesn't make the Lightning's picture that much rosier, and their 23rd-ranked 80.7 penalty-killing percentage is likely an accurate portrayal of their true talent.
Montreal's significant advantage over Tampa Bay in penalty killing will likely give it the overall special teams advantage in this series.
In fact, a high shooting percentage with the man advantage is the only thing preventing Tampa Bay from having the worst special teams among all postseason participants.
Pittsburgh Penguins over Columbus Blue Jackets
When Pittsburgh Has a Power Play
It should come as absolutely no surprise that a power play with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is among the league's best.
The Penguins scored 8.80 goals per 60 minutes and attempted 3.68 shots per two minutes, 2.11 of which reached the net, for a 23.4 power-play percentage.
The Blue Jackets penalty-killing is decidedly average, whether its their 82.1 penalty-killing percentage, their 6.19 goals-against average or their 3.20 attempted shots allowed per two minutes.
When Columbus Has a Power Play
Pittsburgh's league-best .908 save percentage while killing penalties has boosted an otherwise average penalty kill to a fifth-best 85.0 penalty-killing percentage.
When looking at shot-based data, the Penguins are actually in the bottom third, allowing 3.39 attempted shots per two minutes.
As for Columbus, after years of some questionable results, the team has finally developed a respectable power play. The Blue Jackets attempt 3.28 shots per two minutes, 1.76 of which reach the net, both of which are league average.
Their 7.04 goals per 60 minutes is the eighth best in the NHL, and their 19.3 power-play percentage ranks 11th.
Even if their goaltending cools down, the Penguins still have a big advantage on special teams.
Columbus have developed themselves into a respectable position in both manpower situations, but the Penguins are downright dominant with the man advantage.
New York Rangers over Philadelphia Flyers
When NY Rangers Have a Power Play
The Rangers attempt 3.60 shots per two minutes on the power play, fourth best in the NHL behind only San Jose, Pittsburgh and Washington.
Of those that reach the net, their power play out-shoots Philadelphia's by a narrow margin of 1.88 to 1.85 (per two minutes), but the Flyers score on 12.8 percent of those relative to 11.2 for New York.
The Rangers are consequently league average, with 6.34 goals per 60 minutes and a power-play percentage of 18.2 percent.
As for the Flyers, they allow just 2.81 attempted shots per two minutes, lowest in the NHL. Their overall 84.8 penalty-killing percentage ranks seventh.
When Philadelphia Has a Power Play
Philadelphia's power play is top 10 by any measurement.
The Flyers scored 7.13 goals per 60 minutes, sixth highest in the NHL. Their 19.7 power-play percentage is eighth best, but mere decimal points from fourth.
In terms of shot-based data, the Flyers manage 3.48 attempted shots per two minutes, eighth best, but the Rangers allow 3.04, eighth fewest.
The Rangers have an .896 save percentage on the penalty kill, fourth best in the NHL, and consequently posted a fourth-best goals-against average of 5.32, barely beating out Philadelphia's 5.37.
Combined with their great discipline, the Rangers have allowed fewer power-play goals than any team except San Jose, and their 85.3 penalty-killing percentage ranks third.
The other notable factor here is the high potential for some shorthanded goals. The Flyers allowed 11 of them this year, behind only Toronto and Edmonton, while New York has scored 10 shorthanders, fewer than only Calgary and Carolina.
This one is almost too close to call. Both teams have effective power plays and penalty kills that should be evenly matched against one another.
In such a debatable situation, the tie could very well be broken by New York's greater threat of scoring a shorthanded goal.