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Sizzling power play has Bruins in playoff contention

by Rob Vollman

If the Stanley Cup Playoffs began today, the Boston Bruins would qualify for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference, thanks to their surprisingly effective power play.

The Bruins have scored 33 goals in 116 power-play opportunities, an NHL-high 28.4 percent success rate. To put that into context, it's up from 17.8 percent last season, and it's higher than last year's Washington Capitals, who led the League with a 25.3 power-play percentage. It is also the highest in Bruins history since this statistic was first recorded in 1987-88. Boston's previous high of 23.6 percent was set in the 1989-90 season, and tied in 2008-09.

The fact that four integral pieces of the power play from last season left the team in four separate summer trades makes Boston's power-play success even more surprising.

·Forward Carl Soderberg was traded to the Colorado Avalanche on June 26, 2015.

·That same day, defenseman Dougie Hamilton, Boston's leading scorer with the man-advantage last season, was traded to the Calgary Flames.

·That same day, forward Milan Lucic was traded to the Los Angeles Kings for goalie Martin Jones and defenseman Colin Miller.

·Forward Reilly Smith was traded to the Florida Panthers for forward Jimmy Hayes on July 1, 2015.

That leaves forward David Krejci as the only returning long-time regular on Boston's power play. Coach Claude Julien has relied upon players who historically were used in more secondary or defensive roles, including forwards Loui Eriksson and Patrice Bergeron, along with younger players such as forward Ryan Spooner and defenseman Torey Krug. These new combinations have responded in tremendous fashion, resulting in five players with at least 10 points with the man-advantage, and four more with at least five.

What would Boston's position in the standings be without its power-play success? A League-average power play would have scored 21.5 goals in the Bruins' 116 opportunities. As a general rule of thumb, every three goals is worth a point in the standings, so that extra 11.5 goals works out to an extra 3.8 points in the standings.

That may not sound like much, but 3.8 points would knock the Bruins from eighth in the Eastern Conference to 13th. The Bruins are tied with the New Jersey Devils with 47 points, one point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators, and two points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers. Boston's power-play success has made all the difference.

If the Bruins' power play slides back toward the League average in the second half, their mediocre play at even strength may not be enough to keep them in the playoff race. Among the 11 Eastern Conference teams within 45 and 51 points in the standings and battling for six playoff spots, Boston ranks seventh by goal differential, and eighth in terms of shot attempts.

Even-Strength Goal and Shot Attempt Differentials, 2015-16
Team Goal Differential Shot Attempt Differential
Carolina -14 +228
Montreal +7 +224
Tampa Bay +10 +166
Pittsburgh +10 +37
Philadelphia -3 +20
Detroit +5 +17
NY Islanders +5 -19
Boston -2 -48
New Jersey -5 -178
NY Rangers +21 -187
Ottawa -9 -240
If Boston's power play does cool off in the second half, it likely won't slide all the way down to the League average. The underlying numbers suggest the Bruins' success has been the legitimate and sustainable consequence of generating scoring opportunities, rather than the result of some lucky bounces.

Given the relatively limited number of power plays per game, some teams can score a few lucky goals and climb to the top of the power-play percentage leaderboard without consistently gaining the zone, controlling the play and generating opportunities. That's why a look at the number of shot attempts per 60 minutes can more reliably reveal which teams are playing effectively with the man-advantage, and which have been enjoying some good bounces. Not only is Boston firmly in the former camp, it has been for several seasons.

Based on the data in the following table, Boston's turnaround occurred in the 2013-14 season, when its power play improved from being average to among the League's best. Over the past three seasons combined, only the San Jose Sharks and the Capitals have averaged more shot attempts per 60 minutes with the man-advantage than Boston. From this perspective, the Bruins' success this year was quite predictable.

Boston Bruins Power-Play Shot Attempts per 60 minutes, 2010-11 to 2015-16
Season SAT/60 Rank
2010-11 95.6 14th
2011-12 96.9 12th
2012-13 88.9 18th
2013-14 105.1 6th
2014-15 113.6 3rd
2015-16 115.4 3rd
Source: Hockey Analysis
The Eastern Conference playoff race will be a tight one, and continued power-play success will be Boston's decisive factor.
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