After what looks like the last, best chance at securing a fourth straight Pacific Division title was ground away last night in Los Angeles, the focus for the Anaheim Ducks shifts to the final two games of the regular season.
Then, of course, comes the fun part.
It seems a far cry from the opening month of the season, or even the Christmas break, when Anaheim appeared in a crater of a hole for their hopes of making the playoffs. Yet on the strength of a franchise record-setting run in the middle of the season, a couple of savvy moves, star players heating up, and yes, special teams, here the Ducks are with home ice secured for the first round.
With that goal achieved, once the remaining two road games are played the focus can fully shift to claiming that chalice which hasn't been seen around these parts in nearly nine years. That in mind, it begs important questions:
@AnaheimCalling (cont.) I'm judging based "eye" test. Much of their winning APPEARS due to ST. When the refs "let them play" in postseason?"— James Gubersky (@MSLRocker) April 8, 2016
Lets tackle them.
The Impact Of League Best Special Teams
Anaheim has the second highest percentage of their scoring total coming via the power play, with 25.96% coming on the man advantage. Only New Jersey has a higher percentage (28.81), and the league average is 21.83%. Interestingly, likely first round opponent San Jose has the third highest percentage of their goals coming a man up, with 25.82%.
On the other side of the special teams equation, the Ducks rank fifth in lowest percentage of goals allowed while shorthanded, with 19.46 of their current league-low concession total of 185 coming while on the penalty kill. Considering Anaheim has been shorthanded the fourth most in the league, this is further proof of the primacy of their ability to prevent scores while down a man. For example, St. Louis has the third best PK in the league, but allowing 21.35% of their goals against while down a man.
The season can be broken down into five general 'snapshots', partitioned based on key milestone moments for the team's fortunes this season: The opening month, November through Christmas, post-Christmas until the acquisition of David Perron, post-Perron to the trade deadline, and the trade deadline to now. Doing so paints a clear picture that the power play was the proverbial spark that lit the fuse for the Anaheim turnaround:
|Avg. GF-GA||1.0 - 2.6||2.2 - 2.25||2.3 - 1.6||3.7 - 2.3||3.0 - 2.3|
The Ducks converted on 9/26 chances with the extra man during the post-Christmas, pre-Perron stretch with Ryan Kesler scoring three times and assisting once, and Ryan Getzlaf scoring twice and assisting twice. Anaheim's power play got points from 11 different players over that span, which set the table for the extra offensive infusion.
While the penalty kill flagged big time after the deal, the power play production has seemingly been at a steady pace since then as a percentage of overall scoring, through the trade deadline to current day. The offensive production as a whole has grown nearly 50 percent, averaging 3.4 goals per game versus 2.0, over the last 37 games. It points to not only well above league average power play production, but improvement at even strength as well.
Even Strength Play Along The Way
With the success of the power play in mind, lets look at how the even strength scoring as well as possession metrics have fared over the same snapshots:
Possession hasn't been a big issue for the Ducks for much of the season, at least in terms of controlling the attempts battle at five on five. The Christmas-Perron window clearly shows that the power play was carrying the team at that time, but since the trade Anaheim has gotten the better of teams at even strength (all forms, 5v5, 4v4, 3v3) on the scoreboard.
The shooting percentage jumping at even strength has been a big part of that, seeing decreases across the board in the possession metrics since first acquiring Perron, and then the trade deadline. Anaheim is still second worst in the league for the season, scoring on 6.4% of the shots they take at even strength, but have been much better in finishing their chances.
That being said, the downward trend in controlling the balance of shot attempts, both including blocks and unblocked, as well as scoring chances is one that the team will have to reverse in the playoffs. Breaking down the post trade deadline numbers even further, in the 10 games before Perron's shoulder injury on March 20, the Ducks generated 50.4 SAT%, 51.1 uSAT%, 51.1 SCF% and 48.3 HDC%. Over nine games since, they created 48.7 SAT%, 50.2 uSAT%, 52.0 SCF%, and 50.3 HDC%.
Has Special Teams Success Continued In Playoffs?
Last season Anaheim generated just 16.23% of their goals via the power play during the regular season, and saw that percentage jump to 21.05% during the playoffs. Over the last five playoff years, of the 20 conference finalists there are eight that generated more than 22% of their regular season goals on the power play. For the penalty kill side, eight allowed fewer than 20% of their goals against while on the kill.
Of those eight 22%+ power play teams, three were able to produce a higher percentage of their goal total on the man advantage during the playoffs. Of the other five that couldn't reach their regular season mark, three remained within a one percent span of equalling the 82-game percentage. Conversely, just one team that allowed less than 20% of their goals on the kill in the regular season was able to decrease the percentage even further in the playoffs (2013 Chicago), while two more were able to still keep it below 20% but not remain within a percent of their regular season number.
When considering the last five Stanley Cup winners, three had a positive special teams goal differential (more power play goals scored than goals allowed on the penalty kill), and two did so during the playoffs. Four of the five generated a lower percentage of their total goals on the power play, while three allowed a lower percentage of their goals from penalties as well. In all but one of those seven reversals, the change was greater than over three percent.
Historically, the last team to lead the league in penalty killing and win the Stanley Cup was the 2003 Devils, while the 1994 Rangers are the last team to claim the title while posting the best power play. In recent years it's been the performance of a team's penalty kill that has portended deep playoff success- four of the last five Stanley Cup Finals have featured at least one team that was top five on the kill, with 2012 and 2013 having both participants in that strata.
Of the past six champions, three have featured a top five penalty kill. 2011's Vancouver team is the most recent to lead the league in one category and finish top five in the other (#1 PP, #3 PK), while those '94 Rangers were third on the kill as well.
The most recent Stanley Cup champion to finish top five in both odd man categories? The 2007 Ducks.
Concerning Signs, But With Health Comes Opportunity
Power play success, critical as it has been to Anaheim's resurgence, has not generally carried over to the same degree in the playoffs. The Ducks do have the benefit of also being strong on the more replicable special team, but falling possession stats at even strength are a concern even if the team is winning the balance of scoring at evens since the Perron acquisition.
And with that mention, it's hard to escape Anaheim's current predicament of not having two of their six leading scorers, as well as their top power play point producer and third in average ice time defenseman since January 16 in the lineup. Returning those players (Perron, Rickard Rakell, Sami Vatanen) to the ice for the playoffs is of the utmost importance.
The Ducks needed the power play to help get their feet under themselves while struggling to score goals thanks to depressed shooting percentage. Now, when icing a full lineup, they have been taking advantage of their chances at a greater rate to win the even strength scoring battle, despite no longer posting the gaudy possession numbers of earlier in the year.
With the sixth fewest power play opportunities, and facing the fourth most penalty kill situations, the Ducks have needed great special teams to survive. Now that they have, it's on to proving they can continue to thrive come the second season.