It’s long been taken as fact by those who follow the NHL that refereeing is a lot looser come playoff time.
Rules often morph into guidelines in order to “let the players play,” which is partly what gives playoff hockey its distinctive rough feel. This year, fans have found penalties are being called at a much higher rate. The grind-it-out style of playoff hockey some fans are used to, might be behind us. Naturally, the more penalties are called, the more special teams become important, which can spell opportunity or disaster for teams still in the hunt for the Cup.
For Florida Panthers fans, you probably already know this is bad news. To say Florida's special teams have struggled in the playoffs would be generous. The Panthers are chugging along with a baffling 0% on the powerplay. After mounting the best offense the NHL has seen in years and maintaining the league’s 5th best power play during the regular season, the Panthers have managed to make it through 8 playoff games with a whopping zero power-play goals.
Tragically, Florida’s special teams situation only gets worse when you take into account their penalty kill. Florida’s PK has dropped from a middling 79.5% in the regular season to a lowly 66.7% in the playoffs, which is good for third-worst in the playoffs ahead of only the eliminated L.A. Kings and Nashville Predators.
Pairing an invisible powerplay with a struggling penalty kill isn’t exactly a recipe for success. In fact, Florida’s presence in the second round already has them defying the odds.
There have been 24 other teams to post a penalty kill percentage at or below 70% over the past 10 years – only four of them made it past the first round. Matters are worse when it comes to the power play. Since 2001-02, only five other teams have posted zero percent on the power play in the playoffs. Not one of them managed to make it through the first round.
If the Panthers want to make it past their second-round matchup with Tampa Bay, history says they need to act quick. In the last ten years of playoff action only three teams could make it past the second round with a powerplay operating below 10%. None of those three teams made it out of the third round.
When it comes to pulling together a championship run, the numbers look even bleaker. In the last 10 years, only 2 teams have won a cup without having a top 5 performing powerplay or penalty kill unit in the playoffs. The two outliers – the 2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks and the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues – were still performing far better than the Panthers when it came to special teams:
- 2014-15 Blackhawks - PP: 17.9%; PK: 79%
- 2018-19 Blues - PP: 16.3%; PK: 75.4%
- 2021-22 Panthers - PP: 0%; PK 66.7%
While both special teams units need to improve, fixing the power play is obviously priority No. 1. It’s not as if the Panthers haven’t had any opportunities – they’re right in the middle of the pack when it comes to power-play time with 6:03 minutes per game, which is seventh in the playoffs. They’re ninth in the playoffs when it comes to total power-play shots and high danger scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Perhaps this all speaks to a larger issue with Florida: their offense hasn’t been humming like it did in the regular season. Their goals per game have dropped from 4.11 to 2.75. Superstar Jonathan Huberdeau only has four points over eight contests. Florida’s top three regular season power-play producers have seen their shooting percentage plummet:
- Jonathan Huberdeau: 13.5% to 4.8%
- Aleksander Barkov: 18.2% to 6.7%
- Sam Reinhart: 17.7% to 9.5%
Luckily, Florida has been getting solid production from Claude Giroux and Carter Verhaeghe, but it's clear they need more from their top point producers going forward.
Unfortunately for Florida, they’ll have to try to get back on track against Tampa Bay. The back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions managed to bring the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lethal powerplay back down to earth in their first series. Rallying against this experienced Lightning team is no small task.
The good news? Maybe this all implies the Panthers have another gear. If the refs keep blowing their whistles and the Panthers’ special teams return to their regular season form, their cup dreams might not be over yet.