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Special teams can take you to special places

by Rocky Bonanno / Vancouver Canucks
Seven of the top eight teams in power-play efficiency from the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are still alive. Seven of the top nine in penalty killing advanced to the conference semifinals.

Makes sense, doesn't it? But the question is, how big a factor are special teams success in the postseason?

If you read the newspapers in Calgary, it was the difference in the Flames' first round flame-out against the younger, less-experienced Blackhawks. Bruce Dowbiggin wrote in the Calgary Herald, "Really, you didn't think the Flames could win a game with a lineup that was part hockey team, part Grey's Anatomy? With a power play that has scored just twice in the Obama administration, or with Anders Eriksson and Adam Pardy holding down the back end?"

Calgary captain Jarome Iginla echoed the sentiment, minus the sarcasm, following the series defeat. "Our power play didn't score. Their’s did," he said. "We had a lot of chances [in Game 6]. A ton of chances. But [Blackhawks goaltender Nikolai] Khabibulin was the difference. Give the Hawks credit. That's a very good, young team. But it's still hard to swallow."

Chicago scored at least once with the man-advantage in every contest with the exception of Game 1. Overall, they went 7-for-24 (29.2 percent) in the six-game series. In the regular season, the Hawks had the 12th-ranked power play at 19.3 percent.

What happened to Calgary's penalty killing is head-scratching. In the regular season, the Flames killed penalties at an 83.4 percent clip, fourth-best in the League. In the playoffs, they were only 17-for-24 (70.8 percent). A big factor was not having defenseman Robyn Regehr, who averaged a team-high 3:41 of shorthanded ice time per game. He missed all six games with a knee injury. To make matters worse, hard-hitting defenseman Dion Phaneuf was forced to miss the final game with broken ribs suffered in Game 5.

When Calgary went on the power play, they scored only twice -- both by Iginla -- on 18 chances (11.1 percent). The Flames struggled during the regular season as well (17.0 percent), placing 21st in the League.

"There were a lot of things that helped us in the series," Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook told the Arlington Heights Daily Herald Times. "Maybe the biggest thing was we got our power play rolling and capitalized on that." Seabrook scored with the man-advantage to open Game 5

But the Chicago-Calgary series is only one example of how failing to stay out of the penalty box in the playoffs can spell doom. The Red Wings had the League's best regular-season power play, which hummed at a 25.5 percent success rate. In the first round they were matched against Columbus, making its first postseason appearance in franchise history. Perhaps a little too pumped up, the Blue Jackets proceeded to be called for every infraction in the rule book in being swept away in four games. Everything from hooking to a too-many-men-on-the-ice call in the final two minutes of the third period of Game 4 that led to Detroit breaking a 5-5 tie on Johan Franzen's power-play goal. Game over, series over.

In all, Columbus took 25 minor penalties -- and one 10-minute misconduct -- in four games. Their most egregious penalty was roughing, called against them seven times. Second-most were four interference calls.

When all was said and done in the sweep, the Red Wings converted on seven of 22 power plays for a 31.8 rate, the best of the first round. Thirty-nine percent of Detroit's 18 total goals in the series came with the man-advantage. The Red Wings gave Columbus only 13 power plays, and the Blue Jackets scored only three times.

Boston went 4-for-16 on the power play to sweep the Canadiens. Eighth-seeded Anaheim converted on 5 of 23 chances (21.7 percent) in upsetting the No. 1 Sharks.

Though No. 3 Vancouver was a heavy favorite against No. 6 St. Louis, the Canucks gladly took the eight power-play opportunities afforded them in Game 3. Vancouver converted on three of them -- two in the second period, one in the third -- to scratch out a 3-2 road win in Game 3. In that contest, the Blues took four roughing penalties. The first two were coincidental, but the third was a back-breaker. Rookie Brandon Crombeen, assigned to check the Sedin Twins line, was called for a two-minute minor at 20:00 of the second period. Steve Bernier scored on the power play 1:41 into the third period to break a 2-2 tie.

Vancouver was masterful on the penalty kill, giving up only one goal in 24 times shorthanded, in dispatching St. Louis in four games. Now matched up against the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Semifinals, the Canucks realize they can't once again average six power plays against per game. "First thing is I don't know whether we are going to be able to give them seven power plays a night," Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo told the Vancouver Sun. "We are going to have to be more disciplined for sure. Even though we want to be physical and have that edge, we have to stay out of the box."


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