NHL playoffs: Refs in tough spot with power-play scoring highest in decades

The power-play conversion rate in the regular season was the highest since 1985-86, and that has only increased during the NHL playoffs.

The NHL playoffs are more full of high-stakes calls than they've been in recent memory. (Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports)
The NHL playoffs are more full of high-stakes calls than they've been in recent memory. (Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports)

Being a referee in the NHL playoffs is a thankless job.

When you call a lot of penalties, you aren't letting the game breathe. When you call too few, you're accused of letting players get away with murder.

If you give a disproportionate amount of calls to one team you're a villain, but if you even them out you are criticized for giving soft makeup calls.

It's impossible to make everyone happy, everything is happening at high speed and there's a lot left up to your discretion. NHL referees, by and large, probably don't get enough credit despite the occasional miscue.

Not only do refs have a tough job, their calls are higher-stakes affairs than they used to be. That's because more and more penalties are resulting in power-play goals.

In the first round of the postseason teams were a collective 84-for-334 with the man advantage — good for a 25.1% success rate. That's the highest playoff conversion rate since 1980-81. That number comes on the heels of a regular season where power plays were successful 21.3% of the time — the NHL's highest average since 1985-86.

During these playoffs power-play goals have accounted for 26.9% of scoring compared to 20.4% in the regular season. Conventional wisdom indicates that teams play a tighter-checking style in the postseason, and the numbers bear that out to an extent. In these playoffs there has been an average of 4.56 goals per game in non power-play situations. During the regular season, the average was 5.06.

When you're penalty killing there aren't many ways to get even more conservative, either. You're already doing everything you can to keep the puck out of your net.

The teams involved in this year's postseason are also having a material effect on this avalanche of power-play scoring. The first round included each of the top seven power-play units in the league by regular-season conversion rate, and 10 of the top 15.

The eight clubs that remain possess three of the league's top five power plays, and the two teams with top-five groups that went home — the Tampa Bay Lightning and Los Angeles Kings — fell to teams with even more success with the man advantage.

Among the surviving teams there isn't a single one that was truly incompetent on the power play during the regular season:

Via NHL.com
Via NHL.com

None of this is particularly surprising. If you look at teams that have success there's a pretty good chance they excel on special teams.

What's intriguing is where we go from here. In these playoffs referees have to be aware of the fact that raising their hand is more likely to tilt a game than it has been in recent history.

Bad calls are more likely to be agonizing. As the expected goal value of a penalty increases, the cost of handing one out unjustly increases, as does the cost of failing to make a call. Incidents like the one we saw with Nathan MacKinnon in Game 5 of the Colorado Avalanche-Seattle Kraken series are destined to crop up.

Players have never been more incentivized to advocate for calls, or resort to diving — an issue that Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman discussed on Monday's episode of 32 Thoughts, claiming there is consensus around the league on the matter.

I think it's out of control. On Sunday night I actually texted some players who've been around a long time, some coaches and executives who've been around for a long time, and I just said look 'tell me if I'm right or wrong about this, but I think the embellishment has gone way too far.' No one disagreed.

Although embellishment penalties are meant to function as safeguard preventing that behavior, they account for just five of the 467 calls made in these playoffs.

With that minimal level of enforcement, it'll be worth keeping an eye on players known for drawing penalties. The Toronto Maple Leafs-Florida Panthers series projects to be an interesting one in that regard.

While just eight of top 30 penalty-drawing players during the regular season are still alive in these playoffs, four of them are on the Maple Leafs and Panthers: Michael Bunting, Matthew Tkachuk, Auston Matthews and Carter Verhaeghe.

No one wants officiating to be a dominant storyline is these playoffs, especially in a year with an unpredictable wide-open field of teams like the ones battling for the Stanley Cup. This should be fun, and more often than not it will be.

We're just dealing with an environment where officiating is doomed to come under the microscope, and that's going to cause some uncomfortable moments.