Analyzing the Florida Panthers’ disadvantage on the power play

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) defend against the attack from Florida Panthers center Noel Acciari (55) during the third period of Game 2 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP)

Eight games into the postseason, the Panthers have yet to score on the power play. While Florida made it through the first round without cashing on in the advantage, it’s diminishing their chances to most past the reigning Stanley Cup champions.

The Lightning, who are up 2-0 in Round 2 and essentially stripped the Panthers of home ice advantage, have gone 4-for-9 over the last two games. Florida, on the other hand, is 0-for-7 this series.

That brings the Panthers up to a putrid 0-for-25 record to open the playoffs. That’s the fourth-worst start on the advantage in the playoffs since 1977-78, according to data collected by Prashanth Iyer. The only teams to rank worst are the 1995-96 Jets (0-for-28), 1986-87 Capitals (0-for-29) and 2010-11 Bruins (0-for-30). That last one may spark some hope because that team managed to win it all despite power-play struggles; they were elite in every other area of the game, while Florida is failing to tap into the offensive firepower that earned them the President’s Trophy.

So, what in the world has gone wrong for the Panthers’ power play?

Florida’s power play is something we talked a lot about heading into the postseason because the Panthers found success with a five-forward unit and ran with it from the deadline to season’s end.

The shift from the usual four forward, one defenseman unit came after Aaron Ekblad, the top unit’s usual quarterback, went down with injury. Shortly after, Florida acquired forward Claude Giroux, who can be a threat in those situations. So, the Panthers replaced Ekblad with Giroux, and didn’t add another defenseman.

Ekblad returned for the post-season, knocking Duclair off that top unit. The tricky part was, the Panthers had to figure out out to re-balance that top unit with Giroux in the fold because they had yet to experiment with both the defender and deadline addition in the lineup together.

Although the team has made adjustments, even shifting back to the five-forward unit, Florida still has no goals to show for it through eight games. Even worse, it’s not a matter of bad puck luck.

What’s been different?

It’s not a matter of shot quantity on the surface — Florida’s attempted a similar rate of shots on 5-on-4 power-play opportunities. There’s some differences on where those shots are coming from, and who.

The heat map helps show how few shots from the point Florida generated without Ekblad at the point to end the regular season.

That’s changed since the playoffs started, many of which have come from the lone defender, Ekblad, who has created shots at a rate of 36.8 per 60. A number of those shots, however, have been blocked and missed, which is why he’s generated only 13.8 shots on goal per 60.

Aleksandar Barkov, unsurprisingly, has more slot attempts in the post-season compared to the end of the regular season, when he played strictly the point versus shifting back and forth. But none of those slot shots have connected on goal.

Jonathan Huberdeau has increased his shooting and slot-shot creation come the post-season. Sam Reinhart and Giroux, however, have both shot less — and that’s a reason fewer shots are coming from the slot, considering they tend to be stationed as the net-front of down the middle. The most frequent shooters on this top unit aren't the players who consistently are stationed within the home plate area — it’s Ekblad, in his minutes, and Barkov, who roves between the circle and point.

All of that helps explain why the Panthers are generating a lesser rate of slot shots (a decrease of 5.9 attempts per 60). But even more troublesome is that their quality shots aren’t reaching the net nearly as often, whether they’re missed or blocked — from 45 per cent of their shot attempts connecting to just 33.

What also may be influencing the danger of the Panthers’ shots in is their passing. Florida had a ton of puck movement over that last month-plus of play, and that’s dropped off across eight games as well. That likely influences why Reinhart and Giroux are shooting less than in the regular season.

Fewer passes could be strategic in that teams often try to simplify their games in the post-season. Or that matching up against only one team per series allows them to pick up tendencies and break up passing plays more often. And with less passing, shot locations can also be more predictable and allow penalty killers to be reactive with blocks or stick plays that change the angle of a shot. The fact that defenders are clearing the zone more often too can explain why there’s less passing in the o-zone, since there’s less time in formation.

As Barkov’s pass volume and efficiency has dropped, so has Reinhart’s and Anthony Duclair’s in his limited time in the post-season when that five-forward unit’s been rotated in. Huberdeau’s gone for quality over quantity.

The same is true for Giroux, who is attempting a much lower rate of passes (and is connecting even less). Ideally, there’s more puck movement, not less, from the player in the bumper position who should be distributing the puck to players who aren’t under as much pressure.

The shot quality and pre-shot movement all help explain why Florida’s expected goal generation is down — from its season-wide heights (7.11 expected goals per 60) and post-deadline (7.46), down to a rate of just 5.45 per 60. Although the Panthers exceeded expectations throughout the regular season thanks to their finishing talent, they at least had stronger offensive creation behind it for support.

Handedness could come into the fold too when looking at teams connecting on passes and missing more shots. It took the Panthers time to figure out how best to set up in formation with a new-look five-forward unit.

Ekblad is right-handed, which differs from Barkov, who has skated in his role. With Barkov playing in the right circle, he can set up with his offhand to improve his shooting angle. When he isn’t in that position, though, it’s Giroux who is right-handed. Meanwhile, lefty Huberdeau stays on his on-side, making him less of a shooting threat. That may explain why he hasn’t converted, despite upping his shot rate.

Although Huberdeau is in an ideal position to set up his teammates, it’s tough for a player such as Giroux to receive the pass and shoot quickly if it’s set up laterally.

Goalies have more time to react and reset, versus being tested with a one-timer. So, the current formation with handedness in mind can outright lessen how many dual threats are on the top unit. That’s why the Giroux and Huberdeau approach is one solution that may be worth trying instead of swapping Barkov and Giroux in the slot and right circle.

Maybe another answer is adjusting who is on the top unit, particularly when Florida opts with a five-forward unit.

Carter Verhaeghe can help the Panthers regroup quicker, seeing as he’s one of the best at entering the zone with the puck on his stick when he has less time and space at 5-on-5. Maybe he should be a consideration over Duclair or to try to get this unit going, especially with his MVP-caliber play in Round 1 in mind.

The risk of a five-forward unit can be how a team holds the zone. That actually wasn’t a problem in the regular season for this squad — and much of that likely has to do with Barkov’s defensive instincts and ability to hold the blue line. But clearly, setting up in formation and sustaining offensive pressure has become one regardless of who is on this top unit. So, it doesn’t hurt to have a player the team knows can carry it right back up the ice with speed.

The power play isn’t the only area the Panthers aren’t popping as the offensive force it was throughout the regular season. But every missed opportunity on the advantage is deflating. And now when it’s a weapon on one side of the matchup, and a legitimate disadvantage on the other, it’s catching up to Florida, who are two losses away from their season ending.

Data via Sportlogiq

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