Thereís an adage in sports which goes something like this: you need to take advantage of your opportunities when you get them, because you wonít get many. If this is true, itís especially true in the playoffs, because in the playoffs you play against good teams, and good teams donít make many mistakes. When they do make a mistake, then, you need to take advantage of it.
Another concept is the turning point: the point of the game where something important happens that has a very significant influence on the final outcome. Turning points are tied to opportunities when the score is close. If you take advantage of an opportunity that the other team gives you, and score a goal that gives you the lead as a result, that will likely by the turning point in the game.
One of the most significant opportunities a team can give up in the NHL is the two-man advantage. Taking a penalty while already killing a penalty gives the other team a five-on-three power play, which results in a significant chance to score. How significant? Letís look at the results of the 74 playoff games played through May 19.
Using basic power-play success rates, a two-man advantage doesnít seem much more effective than a one-man advantage:
State PPG Opp %
1-man advantage 107 565 18.9
2-man advantage 6 27 22.2
Total 113 592 19.1
An improvement of 3.3 percent is nothing to sneeze at, but itís also not very dramatic. Of course, thereís a problem with using these numbers. It is very, very rare for a team to have an extended two-man advantage. A five-on-three typically results when a team takes a penalty while killing another penalty. The two-man advantage therefore only lasts for the amount of time the first penalty had left to run when the second penalty occurred. In fact, the 27 two-man advantage situations thus far in the playoffs total only 23:22, or 0:52 per opportunity. The average one-man advantage has lasted 1:39, which is 90 percent longer. If we compare power plays based on the rate of goals per 60 minutes in each situation, we can see just how advantageous that second penalty is:
State PPG Minutes PPG/60 min
1-man advantage 107 931:34 6.9
2-man advantage 6 23:22 15.4
So teams have been 2.2 times as likely to score five-on-three than with a one-man advantage in these playoffs. Thatís a significant opportunity, one that the adage says you canít waste. Letís look at how teams have done in these playoffs when they have benefitted from a two-man advantage.
Overall, 12 of the two-man advantages have occurred in games the teams win, and 15 in games the teams lose. But weíre not interested in overall totals; a two-man advantage when the game is already decidedósuch as Chicagoís on May 2, when they were already up 5-2 against Vancouveróarenít all that relevant to the discussion. If we look only at the 15 two-man advantages that occurred when the score was close, meaning tied or within one goal, and break it down based on whether the team scored or not, we see a very strong trend:
Result Win Loss
Goal 3 1
No goal 1 10
To make the point even stronger, the one loss in the ďGoalĒ category belongs to Vancouver, in that same May 2nd game against Chicago. Vancouver took a 2-0 lead on a power-play goal while five-on-three. However, later in the game Chicago tied the score at two-all when they scored on their own two-man advantage. So the only loss when a goal was scored on a two-man advantage occurred when the other team also scored a goal with a two-man advantage.
Based on the above, if you score on a five-on-three advantage when the game is close youíre 75 percent more likely to win the game, but if you donít, youíll only win nine percent of the time. Therefore, it appears that a two-man advantage when the score is close is absolutely a turning point in a game. Teams that take advantage of it are far more likely win the game than those who donít.
There are the usual caveats about these being small sample sizes, but the conclusion here doesnít just rely on the numbers, it also makes a great deal of sense. A team has little or no control over when theyíre going to get a two-man advantage. Some teams are better at drawing penalties, but even so the two-man advantage is a fairly rare occurrence and is therefore difficult to predict.
Assuming that you play an average game other than the two-man advantage, scoring an average number of goals and allowing an average number of goals, the extra goal from the five-on-three is typically enough to swing the result to your favor. On the other hand, if you fail to score, you can expect the other team to score an average number of goals on its two-man advantages, and in the long run you will lose more games than you win.
Of course, this is true of any type of opportunity you might have, including a single-man advantage, or even scoring at even strength when the game is close. What makes the two-man advantage more important is the fact that it is so much easier to score in that situation than another; wasting your best opportunities is not a good way to win hockey games.
It is interesting to note, however, that there does not appear to be a "confidence" or "momentum" effect here. Scoring or not scoring on a two-man advantage does not seem to influence what happens in the game after the advantage is over. Teams that score on a two-man advantage may enjoy a slight increase in goal differential, but it takes some time to materialize (between 5-10 minutes after the two-man advantage), and can probably be attributed to a cross-correlation effect, because good teams tend to score with a two-man advantage, and good teams tend to have a good goal differential outside of a two-man advantage. As such I wouldnít put any stock in it. A teamís play with the two-man advantage is important because of what that potential power-play goal means to them, not how their success of lack thereof affects their performance (or their opponentsí) for the remainder of the game.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .