- Corey Pronman, ESPN Insider
(Note: All statistics used in this column are as of games ending May 15, 2011.)
Conventional wisdom is that strong special-teams performance is important, especially in the playoffs. While special teams do drive results, accounting for nearly 25 percent of goals in just more than 10 percent of the ice time, short samples like the playoffs tend to leave us with more questions than answers. The main questions: How much of the performance was real or luck, and how much is it a predictor of future performance?
In regard to special teams, the answer to the second question is "not much."
There have been many studies on the consistency of performance in the different situations. JLikens at Objective NHL has shown that power-play success and penalty-kill success for individual teams correlate at .347 and .332 rates respectively over consecutive regular seasons, meaning they vary quite a bit from season to season.
The main reason for that is due to the high amount of random variation and luck affecting the results. As Gabe Desjardins has shown, random chance affects 38 percent of a team's total regular-season performance. Adjust that figure for the 10-plus percent of that ice time accounted for by special teams and the results become even more random and even less dictated by skill.
Take that same small proportion of playing time and shrink it to just the playoffs, a much smaller sample to look at, and the skill aspect of special teams just about goes out the window. Teams do have special-teams skill, but given the nature of the playoffs it's almost impossible to prove that a team's performance is anything besides good or bad luck. So, what does that mean for the remaining four teams in the playoffs? Well for starters, Boston Bruins fans shouldn't get too discouraged by their brutally underperforming power play.
Hockey Prospectus looks at the random nature of power plays and penalty killing in the NHL playoffs. Due to the small sample size, special teams don't play as big a role in the series as you may think.