If everything goes according to plan, the NHL qualifying round and seeding will begin on August 1st in Toronto and Edmonton, which means we could see exhibition games by the end of this month.
With more time on my hands than usual at this time of year, we can look deeper into commentary, and one statement I’ve heard for years is how special teams aren’t as important in the playoffs.
Is this true?
I decided to look back at the past four NHL seasons and the special teams and 5×5 play of the Cup Finalists. I looked at it after hearing former NHLer Mike Johnson’s explain why he picked the Chicago Blackhawks to upset the Edmonton Oilers.
“The Edmonton Oilers were so reliant on their power play and penalty kill,” said Johnson. “If that goes cold, 5-on-5 hockey, which playoff hockey involves more of, doesn’t favour them to the same degree.”
Let’s dive into the past few seasons.
I picked the Cup finalists because they play the most games so we have a larger sample size to look at rather than teams playing one round.
2016: PENS v. SHARKS
In the regular season the Sharks’ PP was second at 22.6% and their PK was 21st at 80.5% while Pittsburgh’s PP was 16th at 18.4% and their PK was fifth at 84.4% and. Here is how they did in the playoffs.
2016 5×5 GF 5×5 GA PP% (GF) PK% (GA)
PIT 50 42 23.4% (18) 85.1% (10)
SJ 48 34 23.1% (18) 79.7% (13)
The Penguins’ PP was third best among teams who won at least one round and their PK was second best. They were +8 at 5×5 and +8 on special teams. The Sharks’ PP was fourth best and their PK was sixth. They were +14 at 5×5 and +5 on special teams.
In the Stanley Cup Finals the Penguins outscored the Sharks 11-10 at 5×5 and 3-1 on special teams.
I also looked at PP and PK situations per game from regular season to the playoffs. Do teams get fewer PP chances?
**PPR is powerplay in regular season, PPP is powerplay in the playoffs and same for the PK. This will be per game.**
TEAM PPR PPP PKR PKP
PIT 3.18 3.21 3.13 2.79
SJ 3.35 3.13 2.88 2.68
Both teams had fewer penalty kills in the playoffs, while Pitt had a slight uptick in PP chances, and San Jose’s dropped.
2017: PENS v. PREDS
The Penguins’ PP was third (23.1%) and their PK was 20th (79.8%), while the Preds were 18th (18.9%) on the PP and 15th (80.9%) on the PK. Nashville’s PK was excellent in the playoffs.
2017 5×5 GF 5×5 GA PP% (GF) PK% (GA)
PIT 51 44 20.5% (16) 83.6% (12)
NSH 42 37 16.9% (11) 89.1% (7)
The Penguins’ PP was third best among teams winning a round and their PK was fifth best, while the Predators’ PK was first and their PP was fourth. The Predators’ PK helped them get to the Cup Final. They were +5 at 5×5 and +4 on special teams.
Here was their PP/game and PK/game from the regular season and playoffs.
TEAM PPR PPP PKR PKP
PIT 3.17 3.12 3.13 2.92
NSH 3.16 2.95 2.94 2.91
A slight drop in PPs and PKs for both teams.
2018: CAPS v. KNIGHTS
In the regular season Capitals’ PP was seventh (22.5%) and their PK was 15th (80.3%), while Vegas’ PP was 14th (21%) and their PK was 10th (81.4%).
2018 5×5 GF 5×5 GA PP% (GF) PK% (GA)
WSH 52 39 29.3% (22) 76% (18)
VEG 48 34 18.5% (12) 79.5% (15)
The Capitals’ PP was outstanding in the playoffs, but barely outscored their porous PK. Vegas also struggled on the PK and was actually -3 on special teams. Their 5×5 play got them to the finals.
In the finals, Vegas won game one 6-4. Each team scored four goals at 5×5, but Vegas scored once on the PP and then into an empty net. Washington won the next four games, and outscored Vegas 9-6 at 5×5, and 5-1 on the PP.
Here is a quick glance at their PP/game and PK/game during the regular season and the playoffs.
TEAM PPR PPP PKR PKP
WSH 2.98 3.13 3.28 3.13
LV 3.02 3.25 2.89 3.65
Vegas had more PPs in the playoffs, but also were on the PK significantly more and their PK struggled. The Caps also had more PPs, but fewer PKs.
2019: BLUES v. BRUINS
In the regular season:
2019 5×5 GF 5×5 GA PP% (GF) PK% (GA)
STL 56 41 16.7% (13) 75.6% (16)
BOS 42 38 32.1% (24) 88.4% (8)
The Blues are the only Cup winner to struggle on both special teams. They were actually -3 on special teams, scoring 13 PP goals while allowing 16 on the PK. Meanwhile Boston’s special teams were a main reason they went to the Cup Final. They were +16 on special teams and only +4 at 5×5.
Here is how how their special teams compared from the regular season to the playoffs.
TEAM PPR PPP PKR PKP
STL 2.89 3.08 2.83 2.50
BOS 3.06 3.08 2.98 2.88
Boston had a slight up tick on the PP and was down on the PK, while the Blues had more PPs and fewer PKs.
So five of the eight teams had more PP chances/game in the playoffs, while seven of the eight had fewer PKs/game.
I think special teams are equally important in the playoffs as they are in the regular season. The Blues were the only finalist who struggled at both and managed to win, while the others either dominated on the PP or on the PK.
OILERS SPECIAL TEAMS…
Edmonton finished the season with the second best combined special teams percentage in NHL history. The Oilers’ PP was 29.5% and their PK was 84.4% for a total of 113.9%. Only the 1978 New York Islanders were better at 114.9%. Here are the top-five of all-time (the NHL started tracking PP and PK success in 1977/1978):
1978 Islanders at 114.9. Their PP was 31.4% and PK was 83.5%
2020 Oilers at 113.9. Their PP was 29.5% and PK was 84.4%.
2019 Lightning at 113.2%. PP was 28.2% and PK was 85%.
1978 Canadiens at 112.9%. PP was 31.9% and PK was 81%.
1979 Canadiens at 111.9%. PP was 28.3% and PK was 83.6%.
Johnson is correct that the Oilers relied on their special teams a lot, but I think many overlooked how much they improved their 5×5 play in 2020.
From October 1st to December 31st the Oilers were 21st in GF (75) at 5×5 and they were 29th in GA (98) at 5×5. They were an ugly -23. Only Detroit (-46) and San Jose (-29) were worse. Edmonton scored 1.78 goals/game at 5×5, but they allowed 2.33 during this time.
However, the Oilers made major improvements in the second half of the season. Since January first the Oilers had the fifth most points and the fifth highest points% in the NHL.
Their 5×5 play improved immensely, outscoring teams 67-60. They scored 2.31 goals/game at 5×5 and allowed 2.06.
Here are the Western Conference playoffs teams GF-GA differentials at 5×5 and special teams since January 1st.
|COL||62-46 (+16)||18-13 (+5)||80-59 (+21)|
|EDM||67-60 (+7)||20-11 (+9)||87-71 (+16)|
|MINN||66-52 (+14)||23-21 (+2)||89-73 (+16)|
|STL||68-52 (+16)||20-21 (-1)||88-73 (+15)|
|CGY||66-62 (+4)||18-13 (+5)||84-75 (+9)|
|CHI||69-60 (+9)||13-15 (-2)||82-75 (+7)|
|VEG||65-55 (+10)||15-25 (-10)||80-80 (0)|
|ARI||52-55 (-3)||15-13 (+2)||67-68 (-1)|
|VAN||66-71 (-5)||18-17 (+1)||84-88 (-4)|
|WPG||56-68 (-12)||19-11 (+8)||75-79 (-4)|
|DAL||39-46 (-7)||23-21 (+2)||62-67 (-5)|
|NSH||56-60 (-4)||18-22 (-4)||74-82 (-8)|
If you look at the GF-GA in all situations since January 1st, most teams are close to their above differential, except for Vegas and Winnipeg.
Vegas scored three shorthanded goals, three at 3×3, one at 4×4 and didn’t allow any in those situations.
Winnipeg scored 10 empty net goals and only allowed one, so their -4 GF-GA in the above chart is a bit misleading because they don’t get credit for leading late in games and securing wins with the empty net goal.
It is also interesting to note that Vegas (65.3%), Dallas (73.8%) and STL (74.1%) have all struggled on the PK since January 1st. They are in the seeding round and considered solid defensive teams, but their PKs, especially Vegas’s, have been horrifically bad. Will that trend continue in the playoffs?
You can’t overlook how bad of a December Edmonton had at 5×5. They were atrocious. They were outscored 39-18 in 14 games. If you just look at the entire season the Oilers 5×5 play isn’t good as they were outscored 142-158, but the horrific 14-game stretch in December, where they were -21, really impacts the overall numbers. In their other 57 games the Oilers were +5. Far from a dominant team, but not nearly as bad as the overall numbers suggest.
I disagree with Johnson that the Oilers have a significant disadvantage with Chicago at 5×5. Edmonton only had the 22nd most PP chances/game in the NHL in the regular season, so I’d be surprised if they suddenly dropped more than the 2.82/game they averaged all season.
From October-December the Oilers had 3.07 PP/game and their PP was 30.2%. They were on the PK 2.86/game with an 83.3%.
From January-March they had 2.45 PP/game and their PP was 28.5% and their PK/game was 2.72 with an 86.1%.
The only aspect of their team which was good in December was the PP which produced at a 29.4%. Their PK, like their 5×5 play, was bad at 72.4%.
I realize you can’t discount one month of consecutive play, but in those 14 games the Oilers were a terrible hockey team.
They were outscored 39-18 at 5×5, their PK allowed eight goals on 29 kills (72.2%). PP was solid with 15 goals on 51 chances 29.4%.
For 31 days they were not good. Is it possible they become that team again? Sure, but in the other 81% of the season the Oilers were more than competitive.
They outscored teams 124-19 at 5×5, their PK allowed 23 goals on 170 kills (86.4%) and their PP scored 44 goals on 149 chances (29.5%).
Edmonton is far from a defensive juggernaut, but for 81% of their season their 5×5 play was very competitive.
I’ve seen many bad Oilers teams over the years, and all the numbers matched the results, but this is not a bad defensive team. They are better than we think.
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