The NCAA’s Points of Emphasis (POE) have meant more penalties, and, as a result, more power plays. Special teams are more important than ever in college hockey. After some serious number crunching, I’ve uncovered the following:
• Penalties are up, but you knew that. As of last Sunday, there were a total of 12,912 minutes in penalties assessed in 287 games. That’s 46.6 minutes per game. Compare this to the 2003-04 season, where a total of 29,096 minutes were handed out in 868 games. That’s 33.6 minutes per game. That translates into an increase of 13 minutes per game in penalties, a whopping 39% increase in the number of minutes assessed.
• Power plays are also up, obviously, and by an even larger margin. So far this season, there have been 4,529 power play attempts, or 15.8 per game. Last year there were a total of 9,136 power plays, or about 10.5 per game. That’s an increase of over five per game, or 50%. Why is this percentage higher than the overall increase in penalty minutes? My assumption is that most of the POE calls are not coincidental, meaning the number of man-advantage situations is higher.
• Now let’s look at power play efficiency. Teams have converted 804 of those 4,429 power plays so far, or 17.7%. Last year, 1,736 power play goals were scored in 9,136 attempts for a percentage of 19.6%. Why the decrease? Perhaps it’s because teams are focusing more on their penalty killing in response to the added number of power plays they are facing, or because with the increased number of penalties called, power plays are overlapping more, meaning that many are not the full two minutes, making it harder to convert. I have witnessed this in games that I have broadcast this season: even strength becomes five-on-four for one team, then four-on-four with another penalty call, then five-on-four the other way. Both power plays were less than two minutes in length. Of course, one could argue that there are more five-on-threes this season, and I think there are, swinging the numbers back a bit the other way.
What does this all boil down to? Special teams are more important than ever. One team that is struggling with this is RIT, which has had one of the best power plays in Division III over the past five seasons. Not this year. Last season the Tigers were seventh overall with a conversion rate of 28.1%; this season they are 55th, cashing in on only 13.2% of their opportunities.
“Some of it is talent and experience,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson. “We’ve had some pretty good players on the power play over the past few years. Now we’ve got some new guys (on the power play) and we’ve expanded our units to include more players.”
“Teams are familiar with what we have been doing, and I don’t think we’ve adjusted as much as we need to in certain situations,” he said. “If a team is packing it down low, we need to use our perimeter more, and if teams are challenging us at the point, then we need to work it down low better. We need to be more aggressive.”
The No. 1 power play (33.3%) right now belongs to Colby, where coach Jim Tortorella says he’s keeping it simple.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “But what we do is make sure we work on special teams every day, in different situations.”
One change that Tortorella has made is to involve more players in his power play unit.
“Because there are games were you see a lot of power plays, we have a third unit. Do we really have 15 guys that should be on the power play? Probably not. But you have to look at the length of the entire game and can’t keep using the same five guys. Also, it gives an opportunity for players who you normally wouldn’t play in, say, a four-on-four situation, and gives them the experience to play special teams. And our players have responded very well to that.”
Short-Handed in a Different Way
This season has already had three major incidents were significant suspensions were handed out. Skidmore suspended six players for four games and still have two veterans sitting out until next semester begins. Neumann has suspended an unknown number of players for an indeterminate period, recently dressing just 13 players and using goalie Josh Vega as a center on the third line. Gustavus Adolphus suspended all but three players last Friday and used their JV team in a game against St. John’s, losing 7-0.
Skidmore’s situation has been well documented, but Neumann and Gustavus have kept the lid on the reasons for their suspensions, attributing them as punishment for “rules violations”.
“You have to send a wake-up call sometimes,” said Wilson. “From what I’ve seen, the suspensions have been fair in terms of not being too strict and affecting the players involved equally.”
Wilson has already imposed two major sanctions in his six-year tenure at RIT. In 1999, he suspended half of the team for the first game of the Times/Argus Tournament at Norwich. In 2001 virtually the entire team was suspended, spread out across two games. It’s a common practice to split team suspensions or use JV players to avoid canceling games, since that would adversely affect the other team.
“This isn’t the pros — it’s too bad you can’t do things like that in the pros,” said Wilson. “Discipline is very important.”
Sending Out an SOS
We’re at about the 1/3 mark of the season, so it’s fair to start looking at numbers like strength of schedule. Sometimes a team’s slow start can be attributed to playing the easier part of its schedule early, and visa-versa.
Here’s the Top 10 toughest schedules played so far, based on opponent’s winning percentage:
1. New England
2. Castleton State
3. Conn College
4. Buffalo State
9. St. Olaf
New England and Castleton are a combined 2-11 so far this season, but can take some solace in the competition they’ve faced so far. Of the teams with toughest schedules, only Norwich, RIT and Curry are ranked in the top 15.
For what it’s worth, here’s the schedule rank of the Top 15 (out of 67):
1. Middlebury — 47th
2. Manhattanville — 45th
3. Norwich — 5th
4. St. Norbert — 19th
5. Wisconsin-Superior — 8th
6. St. John’s — 59th
7. RIT — 6th
8. Fredonia — 40th
9. Wisconsin-River Falls — 32nd
10. Curry — 10th
11. Oswego — 21st
12. Trinity – 43rd
13. St. Thomas — 12th
14. Hobart — 24th
15. Bethel — 20th
Box Score of the WeekHere’s a wild one.
The Curry-Mass.-Dartmouth game on December 4th produced the following: 60 penalties. 204 penalty minutes. One major. Three misconducts. One game misconduct. Three fights. Two unsportsmanlike minors. 38 power plays.
Oh, and nine goals. Curry won the game 8-1, mostly due to UMass-Dartmouth going 1 for 25 on the power play.
Which brings us full circle.