“Special teams don’t matter in the playoffs.” That’s a common sentiment you hear heading into the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs every year. The refs will swallow their whistles, only calling the most obvious penalties and, even then, letting them occasionally slide.
So fans were probably surprised to see a total of seven penalties called in Game 1 between the Nashville Predators and the Dallas Stars, followed by nine in Game 2. The series ended up having 37 power plays, 22 for Dallas and 15 for the Predators.
That’s a lot of 5-on-4 time (and occasionally 5-on-3) across six games. And in the end, those power play opportunities had a huge impact on the series.
By now, we are all familiar with Nashville’s power play woes. The Predators entered the playoffs with the worst power play unit in the league (12.94%). That means they should have scored about two goals with the man-advantage this series. Instead, they went 0-for-15, failing to score a single power play goal.
Of course, Dallas wasn’t exactly great themselves. They went 4-for-22 on the power play (18.89%), and if you exclude the first period of Game 4, it was only 1-18 (5.56%). That’s in large part due to a two-game span where the Stars had ten power play opportunities and failed to score on a single one. Unsurprisingly, those two games — Games 2 and 3 — were the ones Nashville won, both by a single goal.
Think about that for a second — ignoring the Butterfly Effect, if the Stars had scored just a single power play goal in Game 2, it likely never heads to overtime and the Stars might have won the series in five games. Had they also scored one in Game 3, they might have won that game too, meaning a sweep of the Predators was very much within the Stars’ grasp.
Of course, giving the Predators just a couple of power play goals might have drastically altered the series as well. When Blake Comeau was called for tripping with less than two minutes left in regulation in Game 6, I immediately thought, “Of course this will end up being the power play they finally score on.” They of course didn’t, but we were one breakthrough away from watching a Game 7 in Nashville tonight.
Perhaps it’s an over-simplistic view, but given the fantastic performances by both goaltenders, special teams was arguably the deciding factor this series. If Dallas hadn’t been facing a historically bad power play, their own power play struggles might have cost them the series. That’s something they’ll need to keep in mind heading into Round 2 against the St. Louis Blues, who went 5-for-19 (26.32%) against the Winnipeg Jets.
Of course, perhaps we’re not giving enough credit to the Stars’ penalty kill unit. After all, Radek Faksa and co. shut down the Predators’ top line throughout the series, both at even-strength and while on the penalty kill. Nashville’s power play struggles certainly helped them out, but they deserve ample credit for their solid defensive play that contributed to the success of the Stars’ penalty kill.
Regardless, one truth remains certain — special teams absolutely do matter come playoff time. And if there are far less penalties called this series? Well, all the more reason to make every power play and penalty kill count.