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May 6, 2011
The Blue Line
Tampa's Special Teams Dominance

by Matthew Coller

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The Tampa Bay Lightning's sweep of the Washington Capitals has been played up more as a meltdown by Washington than domination by Tampa Bay. Certainly the Capitals underachieved after finishing the regular season at the top of the Eastern Conference for the second consecutive season. Nonetheless, the Lightning have an excellent chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, in great part because of the best power play and penalty kill of the 2011 playoffs.

Tampa Bay has spent 69:02 with a man advantage. They've scored 12 goals, four more than the next best playoff team. The amazing part, however, is that in the 69 minutes on the power play, the Lightning have only taken 46 shots. Quick math: that's around 26 percent of shots during the man-up hitting the back of the net.

How does this compare? Philadelphia, the second highest scoring power play team—with seven goals—to make it into the second round, has taken 73 shots in 72:24. The next best PP scorers are Detroit with seven goals on 44 shots in 38:45, San Jose with six goals on 75 shots in 62:30, Nashville with six goals on 55 shots in 69:32 and Vancouver with six goals on 42 shots in 44:03.

The numbers are indicative of the Lightning's strategy on the power play as well as their chemistry. The strategy is quite obviously to cycle the puck until a higher percentage shot comes available, preferably by a superstar. Seven of Tampa Bay's 12 goals have been scored by either Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis or Vinny Lecavalier. St. Louis has four assists to boot and Lecavalier has three. After a look at film of several power play goals during the regular season and postseason, it seems the Bolts rotate into a 1-3-1 set to give the point man the option of taking a shot or passing to the front of the net from a 45 degree angle.

The Lightning do not simply slap pucks toward the net and hope for rebounds. They don't shoot from the blue line allowing the opposition to block shot after shot. For example, Zbynek Michalek averaged 3:31 of short-handed ice time against Tampa Bay in round one, he only blocked nine shots in seven games. Presumably, a penalty-killing defenseman would be a top shot blocker, but it seems the Lightning never gave him a chance.

In the Conference Finals, the Lightning will have a significant advantage against their likely foe the Boston Bruins. The Bruins have struggled at times on the PK allowing eight goals in 38 total shorthanded chances. They are also allowing nearly four power plays to opponents per game. And while they say the best penalty killer is a good goalie—and Boston has a great goalie in Tim Thomas—if the Bruins give up that many chances to Tampa Bay, they could be in big trouble.

The special teams advantage doesn't end there. Boston has scored just one goal in 32 chances and none in 5-on-4 situations during the playoffs. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has been shorthanded 54 times in 11 games and only allowed three goals. Even more impressive, the Bolts have not allowed a goal in 36 shorthanded chances on the road.

And remember the goalie? Dwayne Roloson enters the Eastern Conference Finals with a save percentage of .941. While he's a prime candidate for regression, the Bolts' netminder didn't drop off in the second round. That's not to say he won't eventually remember he's Dwayne Roloson, rather to suggest if he plays on the same level as Tim Thomas, Tampa Bay will continue to kill off penalties at an extremely high rate.

Speaking of regression, the Bruins have a 2.23 5-on-5 for/against ratio. No team since the lockout has maintained a 5-on-5 for/against ratio of more than 1.74. In other words: Boston will have to figure things out on the power play to compete with the Lightning.

Tampa Bay head coach Guy Boucher's innovation and finally putting talented forwards and defenseman around stars St. Louis and Lecavalier (not to mention a more capable goalie than Dan Ellis) has led to the Lightning with a chance to get back where they were in 2004. General Manager Steve Yzerman has done much in a short period of time, including adding Roloson and Sean Bergenheim, who has seven goals in the playoffs. But if the Lightning end up playing for the Stanley Cup, it will probably be because they've kept up their top-notch play on special teams.

Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Matthew by clicking here or click here to see Matthew's other articles.

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Stats and Fury (05/06)
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