Consequences of Ineffective Lightning Power Play in the NHL Playoffs

It is no secret to the majority of Tampa Bay Lightning fans that the team’s power play has struggled this year. They currently sit at 16.7%, which puts them at 24th in the league. Not exactly en fuego, but more like muy frio. The subject of the lack of power in this special team for the Lightning has been a hot topic over the last couple months. The feeling has been that unless the power play can find some scoring prowess that the team is doomed to fall short in the playoffs.

However, consider this a public service announcement for the Tampa Bay area: the power play performance does NOT guarantee either regular season or postseason success. Peeling the layers of this particularly stinky onion over the last five seasons, the fact of the matter is that the power play of the Lightning has been consistently underwhelming. Only once since the 2010-11 season has Tampa’s power play exceeded the 20% mark, when they were sixth in the league at 20.5% during former head coach Guy Boucher’s initial season at the helm.

Steadily Unsteady

Prior to this season, the five year average for the Lightning’s power play is 18.24%, including the 20.5% mentioned above. Most of the last five years, the Lightning have been in the middle of the pack. During last season’s 2nd place finish in the Atlantic Division the team was 14th in the NHL at 18.4% efficiency. During their long playoff run they improved their power play effectiveness up to 20% from their regular season mark.

Even the year before during the 2013-14 season, the team finished 15th in the league at 18.1% efficiency on the job. The surprise that season was how well the Lightning’s power play performed in the playoffs as they were the number one team of the 16 playoff teams on the power play at 28.6%. Oh yeah, side note on that playoff run, that was when the team got swept in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens. So much for the power play being the key to playoff success.

During the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, the Lightning finished at 15.2% and 19% respectively, good for 24th and 11th in the league. In neither of those seasons did the team make the playoffs. So when fans of the team look at the power play of their team this season, they ought to keep in mind that the overall percentage that determines effectiveness is not, in and of itself, a determining factor of success.

Cups Running Under

Taking a look at the last five Stanley Cup finalists, and in particular their power play proficiency, sheds more light to the question of the impact on overall team success.

Three of the last five Stanley Cup winners finished the regular season in the bottom half of the league in power play effectiveness. Chicago in 2014-15 and in 2012-13, and Los Angeles in 2013-14 all were less than average in the seasons they won the Cup. In fact, Los Angeles was 27th in the league with 14.8% two seasons ago,.

Only two of the last five Stanley Cup runner-ups finished in the bottom half of the league in their power play during their runs to the Cup. To further complicate this stat, of the 10 teams that have played for the Stanley Cup in the last five years, only four of them improved their regular season power play percentage during the playoffs.

Improving your power play during the playoffs doesn’t guarantee success as two of the four teams that have increased their power play come playoff time actually did not win the Stanley Cup.

So what does this all mean? For one, the most important thing about scoring a power play goal is actually when it comes, not how often it comes. A team could go three for five in the power play but if they cannot score an even strength goal and allow four goals to their opponents, that 60% effectiveness means nothing.

Conversely, if a team only scores one power play in six chances but that one special team goal comes with two minutes remaining in a tie game, that 16.7% percentage looms large.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Nikita Kucherov (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

That’s what it’ll come down to for the Lightning. There is no question that they have the offensive firepower. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are two of the league’s best scorers. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are healthy and have been playing their best games as of late, which comes at the best time for the team.

The success of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the playoffs will rely on their overall game. Their special teams will play an important part but their power play will only matter if it scores at the right time or fails in a critical time based on the particular game or series.

Based on the talent this team has, with the highly skilled offensive players, the trend that means the most to me is this: Over the last two seasons, the team has improved on their regular season power play numbers in the playoffs. There is no reason to believe this year will be different.