The importance of powerplays in the playoffs: Why the Leafs must get their special teams rolling

Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Colin Hunter
1 year ago
Hockey can be a fickle sport.
A team’s perceived strength can quickly become a weakness in the seven game sample that is a playoff series. Offences can shrivel up, goaltenders can lose their confidence, and powerplays can run dry.
It’s clear to see that a team’s powerplay is critical to postseason success. Of the last six cup winners, five have had top five powerplay units in the playoffs (with the one exception being the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues).
Since Auston Matthews joined the Leafs in 2016-17, the team’s powerplay has ranked in the top ten in five out of six seasons in the regular season, and is on pace to do so again this year. Out of those five seasons, they have had a top two powerplay by percentage in three of them.
Logically, one would think that this success and firepower would translate to success on the powerplay in the playoffs. Yet, this has not been the case. Of the six playoff series that the Leafs have played in since 2016-17, their powerplay has only outperformed their opponents’ once (against Columbus in the 2019-20 qualifying round, in which they still only went 2-for-13).
Cumulatively, the Leafs have gone 19-for-133 (16.8%) on the powerplay in the playoffs with their current core. During this same time, their opponents have gone 29-for-119 (24.4%). For comparison, during this time the Leafs have gone 298-for-1260 (23.7%) on the powerplay during the regular season.
For the sake of analysis, if the Leafs had maintained their regular season average in the playoffs, it would translate to going approximately 32-for-133, an increase of 13 goals. For a team that has lost in six straight series that have gone the distance, 13 goals likely results in one or more series win(s), in theory.
Clearly, to have success in the playoffs this year, the Leafs’ powerplay will have to perform at a higher level than it has in the past. So how does it look this season?
Currently, the Leafs’ powerplay sits at 26.1%, good for second in the league. This would be their second best mark since 2016-17, trailing only last year’s rate of 27.3%. The Leafs’ round one opponents, the Tampa Bay Lightning, sit just one spot back in third at 25.9%.
Prior to the game last evening, the powerplay had cooled off, going 5-for-27 (18.5%) in the previous nine games. This seemingly prompted a change to the top unit, where Ryan O’Reilly took William Nylander’s usual spot.
Whether this is a long-term change or simply a message to Nylander (who has struggled of late) is yet to be seen. At this point of the season, it’s usually wise not to read too deeply into lineup decisions. It is worth noting, however, that the team scored four powerplay goals following the switch, although in the absence of Morgan Rielly.
Regardless of whether this change is here to stay or not, getting the powerplay some confidence heading into the playoffs will be of great importance. With another round against Tampa Bay upcoming in just over week, it might just be the factor that makes or breaks the Leafs’ chances.

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