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The Helium Playoffs

In baseball, for example, we experienced the era of steroids from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. There has also been, in recent seasons, the era of juicy ball, during which the number of circuits jumped considerably. The NFL had its deflated football scandal, but that only concerned Tom Brady. F1, for its part, has just returned to the ground effects that marked the beginning of the 1980s.

And during the 1990s, the NHL went through such a defensive period that it was dubbed the era of the dead puck.

In short, you get the spirit of the thing, as we said in the film Slapshot.

Well, this year the stats say the Stanley Cup playoffs are becoming one of those periods that leave a small mark in time. To the point where one could even baptize them the helium series. Because, to lift so easily and so often, officials’ arms are probably loaded with it.

Every night since this spring’s playoffs began, fans watching games have been amazed at the high number of penalties awarded by officials. And this, often for little things according to the standards established over the years.

Since time immemorial, hockey fans have bemoaned the existence of two rule books in the NHL: the season rule book, which was applied more rigorously, and the playoff rule book, which almost had to be the life of an opponent in danger to end up in the penalty box.

This year? One could almost say that we are witnessing the launch of a third book because the officials, incredibly, distribute even more penalties than in season!

After 39 games (before Thursday’s games), the 16 teams participating in the playoffs had enjoyed 3.99 power plays per game. For comparison, teams across the league averaged identical 2.89 power plays per game during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 season schedules.

That’s a huge difference!

In season, we haven’t seen officials handing out so many penalties since 2008-2009. So imagine the surprise of seeing them show so much zeal in the heat of the playoffs.

Clearly, this is no coincidence. Someone adjusted the faucet. Orders have been placed with the officials so that the matches are refereed more rigorously.

Who knows, NHL and team leaders may be tired of seeing undead teams come to the finals year after year, pale-faced and all injured. Or maybe at the start of a contract with new American broadcasters, someone thought it would be a good idea to raise the level of the show.

Here’s, statistically, what this year’s playoffs look like compared to the first rounds of previous years.

Penalty minutes per game (minor penalties):

  • 2022: 19.44
  • 2021: 14.98
  • 2020: 14.32
  • 2019: 14.91

In the past seven years, the lowest number of penalty minutes recorded was in 2017, with just 14.09 minor penalty minutes per game.

Power play goals per game:

  • 2022: 1.67
  • 2021: 1.29
  • 2020: 1.33
  • 2019: 1.43

In 2015, the power play goal average had dropped to 1.02.

Number of goals scored per game:

  • 2022: 6.64
  • 2021: 5.6
  • 2020: 5.42
  • 2019: 5.78

It’s clear that by awarding more penalties, the NHL is stimulating offensive play. It is also worth remembering that this season, the power play units of the NHL have been the best performing since the 1989-1990 season. It is not insignificant. And that partly explains why so many offensive exploits have been accomplished.

By handing out more penalties, referees are likely injecting a higher percentage of unpredictability into playoff game outcomes, and they are likely opening the door to more comebacks. These are valid assumptions.

However, the Florida Panthers, who have just completed two spectacular comebacks against the Washington Capitals, would probably not agree with this statement. Because incredibly, their attack, the most productive of the last 25 years in season, has not yet managed to score a single numerical superiority despite the 16 chances it has taken advantage of so far.

The Florida Panthers haven’t scored once on the power play in the playoffs

Photo: Getty Images/Patrick Smith

The sample is thin, but as expected, the playoffs are exceptional this year.

As recently as Thursday morning, the NHL’s communications department pointed out that this is only the fourth time in league history that seven of the eight first-round series require at least six games to be played to determine a winner.

The only years in which the first round was so fiercely contested were the 2010 seasons (seven series that required at least six meetings) and 1991 and 1992 (eight series).

We do not know who has the hand on the famous faucet. But it will be interesting to see if this veritable deluge of penalties slows down over time.

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