Playoff Preview: Do Refs Put Whistles Away in Playoffs?

The NHL playoffs begin Saturday in Washington, and when the puck drops the intensity rises — not only on the ice, but within fanbases. It is awesome. Family members who rarely watch regular season games are suddenly fully invested and engrossed with the rollercoaster of playoff emotions.

Every pass, shot, hit, save, faceoff, scrum, line change and goal is magnified. It is wonderful.

And often the scrutiny of the officials is ratcheted up even more. They have a thankless job. Pretty much every penalty called is loved in one city and hated in the other. Playoffs are rarely a time for rational thinking, nor should they be, for hockey-crazed fans.

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You love your team and that love can blind you in the postseason.

So before the games begin, and our rationality diminishes, let’s look at few topics that are often mentioned.


Is this true? First, let’s look at the numbers. Below you will see powerplays per team in the regular season, compared to powerplays per team in the playoffs dating back to 2015.

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Year PP/GP Reg PP/GP Playoffs
2015 3.06 2.92
2016 3.11 3.27
2017 2.99 3.12
2018 3.04 3.23
2019 2.92 3.16
2020 2.97 3.51
2021 2.9 ??

You have to go back to 2015 to find a season where teams were penalized, on average, more in the regular season than in the postseason. Last season, there was a significant increase in powerplays/game, but that was likely due to a four-month layoff and players not being as game-ready.

Between 2016-2019 we saw an increase in PP/game in the playoffs. Technically, the officials actually call more penalties in the playoffs.

However, we have to recognize that the games are much more physical in the postseason, which in theory will lead to more potential infractions.

Here are hits per team/60 over the past five seasons.

Year Hit/60 Reg Hit/60 Playoffs
2016 23.2 33.1
2017 21.2 33.8
2018 22.3 31.7
2019 22.3 33.1
2020 21.6 36.1

Not a surprise we see teams averaging 10-14 more hits/game in the playoffs. The increase in physical play isn’t matched by the same increase in penalties/game. Body contact is legal, but if we are seeing 43% to 67% more hits delivered in the playoffs, some will end up being illegal.

While the actual penalties called in playoffs increases per game, I do think, based on the massive increase in physicality, that a slight increase in penalties called suggests the officials do in fact let more go. I believe the rate at which infractions are called is down, despite the overall number of penalties is up.

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One other thing in regards to physical contact: Last year Dallas and Tampa were first and second in hits/60 in the playoffs. The Islanders and Vegas were third and fourth. Those four teams were the four finalists. That isn’t always the case of course, but it pokes hole in the narrative that if you are physical it means you have the puck less often.

This regular season, here are the top-10 teams in hits and their ranking in CF%. **And almost all of these teams were also ranked top-10 in FF% and SF%.**

1. Montreal (second in CF%)
2. Ottawa (19th)
3. NYI (20th)
4. Arizona (18th)
5. Edmonton (16th)
6. Boston (third)
7. Florida (fifth)
8. Dallas (seventh)
9. Tampa Bay (ninth)
10. Pittsburgh (14th)

So five teams in the top-10 in CF% and seven of them are in the playoffs.

And here are the bottom-10 teams in hits and their CF% ranking.

31. Colorado (1st in CF%)
30. Minnesota (28th)
29. New Jersey (13th)
28. Detroit (31st)
27. Toronto (11th)
26. Vancouver (29th)
25. Buffalo (26th)
24. Los Angeles (21st)
23. Calgary (8th)
22. Nashville (15th)

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So two in the top-10 in CF% and four playoff teams.

Are we certain that hitting leads to less possession and less success? The numbers suggest otherwise.


I strongly disagree with this statement. We actually see more powerplay opportunities in the playoffs and if your powerplay isn’t producing it could haunt you.

In 2016, the Penguins and Sharks were fifth and sixth in PP% in the playoffs. But were ninth and 10th in PP/chances per game.

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In 2017, the Penguins were fifth and Predators were eighth in PP%, but were ninth and 12th in PP/chances per game.

In 2018, the Capitals and Golden Knights were second and 10th in PP%, and were 10th and eighth respectively in PP/chances.

In 2019, The Bruins and Blues were first and 12th on the PP, and were ninth and 10th in PP chances.

Last year, of the 16 teams in the “real playoffs,” Tampa Bay and Dallas were second and third in PP%, but actually 15th and 16th in PP chances per game.

The Blues were the only Cup winner that struggled on the powerplay. The others were good at 5×5 of course, but were excellent on the PP. They didn’t always get a lot of PP chances, but they capitalized on them.

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Tampa Bay was also third on the PK, the Blues were 12th the Capitals were 10th in 2018 and the Penguins were fifth in 2016 and 9th in 2017.

The Blues were the anomaly, in that they struggled on special teams, but won the Cup. If you go back further you will see they were the exception.

A winning team needs to be very good on at least one, and often on both units, to go deep in the playoffs.

Of course you can lose a round with a good PP, or good PK, if you stink at 5×5, but often having strong special teams is crucial to playoff success.

Of the top-10 powerplay teams this regular season, only the Dallas Stars missed the playoffs. Among the 16 playoff teams, Nashville (24th), Minnesota (23rd) and Vegas (22nd) are in the bottom third of the league.

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But Vegas has the league’s best PK, while Minnesota is 11th, but Nashville is 29th. The Predators special teams is a major weakness in their matchup against Carolina. The Hurricanes are second on the PP and third on the PK.

Of the top-10 PK teams, only Los Angeles and the New York Rangers missed the playoffs.

While Nashville (29th), Pittsburgh (27th), St. Louis (26th), Toronto (23rd) and Montreal (22nd) are in the bottom third.

If the Maple Leafs want to go deep in the playoffs its special teams likely have to improve. Its PK has struggled all season, while its powerplay, after a great start, has really struggled. It’s 11.1% (30th overall) on the PP in their previous 35 games. Its PP was 33.3% in their first 20 games, but has completely unraveled since. If its PP finds some success in the playoffs they will be tough to beat, but if its PP continues to struggle it could spell the team’s demise.


Apr 26, 2021; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) scores on Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) in the second period at Bell MTS Place. Mandatory Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

The 16 playoff teams are set. We know the first round matchups in the North, East and Central and will find out later tonight if Vegas or Colorado finishes first in the West and in the NHL. Colorado will finish first if it defeats the LA Kings. After shutting out the Kings 6-0 last night I like the Avs’ chances of finishing first and facing St.Louis, while Vegas will host Minnesota in game one.

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This year is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the playoffs. The four teams that win their divisions will face teams in the final four and in the Cup final for the first time this season. It is outstanding drama.

Teams in the East, West and Central will be facing off for the ninth time this season in game one of the playoffs.

Edmonton and Winnipeg will be playing for the 10th time.

Toronto and Montreal for the 11th.

The animosity should be heightened early in these series. I can’t wait.

Enjoy the playoffs. Enjoy the wins and be prepared for some devastating losses.

Expect the officials to call more penalties than the regular season, while also allowing more infractions go unpunished.
The hitting will increase.

If you want your team to go deep in the playoffs, it will likely need a solid powerplay and penalty kill.

Bring it on.

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