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Red Wings Playoff Preview: Special Teams

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Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The more we explore the matchup between the Wings and Lightning, the more we start to see that these teams are strikingly similar. Tampa Bay took a 53.3% share of score-adjusted shot attempts, Detroit took a 53.5% share, good for 7th and 5th in the league respectively. Both teams struggled with inconsistent goalie play at various points of the season. Tampa was better at racking up shots, Detroit was better at preventing them, but they both generally created more chances than their opponents. The more we look at other parts of the series, I think there's a strong chance special teams play may in fact be the deciding factor. Let's look at both units.

Penalty Kill

You may think this is where the Wings are the much weaker team, and there's some truth to this, but the difference isn't as stark as you probably think. CHART TIME.

Team PK Attempts PKGA Success Rate League % Rank
Detroit 288 55 80.9% 17th
Tampa 257 42 83.7% 7th

So the bigger issue here is the Wings just take more penalties than Tampa. The difference between the two is equivalent to roughly .4 penalties/game, which over a 7 game series is almost 3 extra penalties. Detroit needs to play a disciplined game, because they just can't afford to spot a high-powered team extra power plays, even if Tampa's power play isn't as lethal as Detroit's. The percentage difference between the two teams is actually pretty minor - if Detroit had prevented just 5 goals over the course of 82 games, these teams would be tied. That means the actual success rate of the PK was worth just .06 goals/game for Tampa over the course of the season. Put simply: if you're going to worry about the PK, worry more about how many penalties the Wings take than the actual PK success rate. If Detroit can manage to take roughly the same number of penalties as Tampa, they might just be able to break even in this area.

Power Play

I don't think it's too much to say this is the biggest reason the Red Wings are in the playoffs right now. Detroit racked up 70 power play goals, good for first in the league by a mile. Tampa's 53 was 7th, and that's a much bigger gap than it seems. Take a look at this for some perspective:

Team PPG League Rank
Detroit 70 1st
Tampa 53 7th
Colorado 37 29th

As those who can do math in their heads quickly have already noticed, the 17 goal gap from Detroit (1st) to Tampa (7th) is bigger than the 16 goal gap from Tampa to Colorado (29th). (Last place was Buffalo with an adorable 30 goals, for those who are wondering.) I'm comfortable saying there's no way Detroit makes the playoffs without those 17 extra goals, and I'm also comfortable saying they won't win this series unless they outscore Tampa on the PP again. Let's see how Detroit and Tampa stack up directly:

Team PP Total PPG Success Rate League Rank
Detroit 294 70 23.8% 1st
Tampa 282 53 18.8% 7th

The success rate gap is much wider here. While Detroit would have had to stop just 5 more power plays to even up the PK units, Tampa's PP would have had to score 14 more goals to match Detroit's success rate. If Detroit is going to win this series, they really have to come out ahead on special teams. Detroit was better on special teams this season, and still finished well behind Tampa Bay. If you take away that advantage, it's going to be awfully hard to beat this team.

Wrapping Up

One crucial thing to remember is that hockey is a really random game, and this is a short series. Detroit is not going to have 23.8% PP success in this series, and Tampa will not have 18.8% success. Whether they do better or worse will be influenced by individual performance, yes, but also by sheer dumb luck. These two teams got bounced from the playoffs last year after shooting 3.4% (DET) and 4.4% (TB) at even strength, far below their actual talent level. Sometimes you just don't get bounces, and special teams are more prone to game-deciding bounces than anywhere else. If one team gets a lot of special teams luck, none of this analysis even matters. If it's close, though, this is one aspect of this series where Detroit has enough of an advantage to create some of their own luck. They may have to do that to win this series.