It’s been the talk of the town over the past few weeks, especially over the past few games for the Penguins. Pundits, former officials, and even the Penguins’ own assistant general manager have agreed that the Penguins are barking a lot more than they are biting. In Pittsburgh, the perception is the team has a talking problem built up by frustration with a league that has reverted to allowing the types of play that it consistently says it wants to avoid and the officials that enforce (or don’t) the league’s rulebook night in and night out.
This two-part series will break down where the Penguins have struggled with penalties this year, where it falls in comparison to previous years, and lastly, will it even matter in the playoffs.
In Part One: Persistence of Penalties Put Penguins in Precarious Pickle, the Penguins and their penalty problems were looked at, as well as what possible explanations were for the seemingly non-stop barrage of penalty calls against, with few in the favor of the team. In Part Two, we ask the question that matters most — does any of this actually matter in the playoffs?
As of the publication of the first part of this series, the Penguins led the league in penalties, both in penalty minutes taken and in misconduct penalties. At a time where capitalizing on a power play could make or break a playoff game or even a series, having to kill penalties more often could easily put a team on thin ice.
What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting Penalties to be Called
Every year, starting a few weeks from now, you’ll hear fans unite across fanbases and cities and proclaim that the referees have officially put their whistles away, signaling the start of playoff hockey. Every year it’s the same folks singing the same tune that playoff hockey is supposed to be tougher, grittier, and not pretty. Every year, it gets a little tougher, grittier, and not pretty. Every year, a lot of fans are left asking where all the Claude Lemieuxs have gone.
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Since the 2009-2010 Season, power play opportunities (PPO) have decreased by a total of 0.58 per game on average, or approximately 0.10 power play opportunities every year, while at the same time, the average penalty minutes called per game (Avg PIM) has steadily decreased since the 2011-2012 season. The difference is over 2 minutes less being called per playoff game in only 2 seasons since.
With the NHL officials calling penalties at a decreasing rate in the regular season, the prospects for this upcoming postseason are looking even slimmer for any meaningful transformation.
The Penguins will enter the playoffs with a gigantic question hanging over their heads — can they stop taking so many penalties and if they can’t, will it matter?
Have the Penguins’ regular season penalties predicated playoff problems?
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No. The very simple answer is no, what the Penguins have done in the regular season, whether it’s playing disciplined hockey or being in the bottom tier for penalty minutes per game, it hasn’t mattered in the playoffs for the Penguins. Over the past 5 postseasons, the Penguins have entered the playoffs being ranked anywhere from 10th to 29th in the NHL in Average Penalty Minutes per game. In that same time, they have finished the playoffs anywhere from 4th to 16th.
What’s most interesting when looking at the above table is the 2011-2012 season and the mess that was the 2012 postseason, most vividly remembered for the Penguins losing their composure against the cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers. After finishing 12th in the regular season, the Penguins entered the playoffs knowing what to expect against a Flyers team that knew what it would take to throw the Penguins off their game plan. In only 6 games, the Penguins racked up an astonishing 24.8 Penalty Minutes per game, ranking 16th out of 16th for that year’s playoffs.
Conversely, the previous year the Penguins entered the playoff picture with a PIM/Game Average worse than the current squad, while ranked slightly better at 29th overall. While only lasting two rounds, the Penguins still managed to average 8th overall in PIM/Game, placing them in the middle of the pack. The other three years display mixed results with the Penguins teams finishing usually in the middle of the 16 teams.
Why Does or Doesn’t it Matter for this Penguins team?
When looking at data for possible correlations, it’s always nice when a trend begins to show itself. The reverse can also be true. In cases where there isn’t a correlation between two variables, it can also be telling.
The lack of a trend for the Penguins could be a good sign. It could provide them with a reset button on their discipline issues. At its simplest point, it means that the Penguins might not have to enter the playoffs believing that they will end the playoffs with the same penalty problems. The Penguins could very well enter the playoffs with the 30th ranked PIM/Game average in the NHL, but it simply won’t matter once they start playing the games that matter most.