Special teams, we are always told, are the difference between champions and also-rans in the NHL playoffs.
Well, based on recent evidence, that is half-right, which might spell trouble for the New Jersey Devils when they open the Stanley Cup final Wednesday at home against the Los Angeles Kings. For it is penalty killing that is the crucial difference for Cup champions, not the power play, which gives the edge on paper to the Kings.
In the last four years, only one team, the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks, that won the Stanley Cup cracked the top five in the postseason power-play statistics. However, all four champions except the Boston Bruins last year were in the top five in penalty killing. But the Bruins' 84.4-per-cent success rate in 2011, which was sixth, was better than the Blackhawks in 2010 (83.3) and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 (83.3). In 2008, the Detroit Red Wings were fourth in the NHL playoffs with a success rate of 85.7 per cent.
So far in this year's playoffs, the Kings' power play is almost the same as the feeble unit iced by the 2011 Bruins, which was 14th among the 16 teams in the playoffs with an 11.4-per-cent success rate. The Kings are an embarrassing 8.1-per-cent on the power play, which puts them 15th in the post-season ranking.
The Devils' power play is a distant fourth to the Philadelphia Flyers, Florida Panthers and the Penguins, who are all above 30 per cent, but its 18.2 per cent is still more than twice as good as the Kings'. The trouble is, the Kings are vastly superior on the penalty kill, as they sit second with a 91.2-per-cent success rate with the Devils 13th at 74.2-per-cent.
What is even more impressive about the Kings is that their penalty killers are an important part of their offence. They scored five shorthanded goals so far this spring, which is two more goals than they scored playing with a one-man advantage. They scored their other three power-play goals in five-on-three situations.
The Kings may have a mere six power-play goals in the playoffs, but it leaves them at plus-one when you subtract the measly five power-play goals they surrendered. Throw in their five shorthanded goals and it's plus-six on special teams. The Devils, on the other hand, have 12 power-play goals but have given up 16 to opposition power plays, which leaves them at minus-four. They do have one shorthanded goal, so make it minus-three for the Devils on special teams. Still not encouraging.
However, there are some things to note about the Devils. In the last three games against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference final, they killed off all six Ranger power plays and produced a power-play goal in two of the last three games. The Devils were also No. 1 in the NHL in penalty killing during the regular season with an 89.6-per-cent success rate while the Kings were fourth at 87.