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Ducks Gameday—The politics of power plays

Anaheim Ducks (38-24-7, 4th in west) at Colorado Avalanche (35-26-6, t-7th in west)

Whenever the Ducks beat an "elite" team these days, it seems the referee critics come out of the woodwork, and I'm not just referring to Bryan Murray. Here's a good example from a Sens blogger, who decided that now that Ottawa was losing games, it was an opportune time to blame referees for destroying hockey, or something to that effect. I'm not going to get too carried away with that piece (I only skimmed it), other than to say this: You cannot gain a sympathetic ear from me by complaining about refereeing after a loss. It's way too common, it's way too kneejerk, and it's way too whiny. Yes, there's blown calls and bad calls and phantom calls and inconsistency, but if you want to take up a fix-hockey cause, timing is critical. Complain after a win. Or better yet, after several wins. Make me believe that you care about the on-ice product and not the game result. If losses are your only impetus, then guess what? You're not improving anything; you're whining.

That's why it was so unexpectedly refreshing to read Dean Brown's blog entry after the Duck-Sen matchup (found via Kukla's). Brown is an Ottawa broadcaster, one whom you might expect the usual boo-hoo story from, but that is not the case. In fact, for most Duck fans, I consider his entry to be a must-read. It describes rather well an aspect I've believed about the Ducks and their penalties but never really voiced: Anaheim is taking advantage of Power Play Politics. PP Politics isn't a new feature of hockey, really, but it has gained more prominence since the lockout and the addition of new penalties.

Let me explain. In hockey, there are several penalties that have to be called. Let's call those the "hard penalties". Pucks over the glass, serious high-sticks or boards, blatant too-many-men, that sort of stuff. Referees need to call hard penalties or else they'd be accused of being blind or bought. Well below that level are softer penalties: sticks in a guy's skate, contact with a goaltender, iffy hits away from the puck, etc. Here's where things are a bit negotiable: penalties could be called in those situations, or they could be overlooked. So long as some of them get called, they remain penalties, but to call them all would be impractical. It would be impossible to play any real hockey, and the game would be reduced to power play parades and blowout scores.

So a referee is given the unenviable task of (a) calling a game by an increasingly rigid penalty book, yet (b) not deciding the game's outcome. This contradiction is the origin of Power Play Politics, how a modern referee can call both hard and soft penalties while remaining outcome-neutral. The bargaining chips for the referee are the soft calls—when and where those infractions get called can help re-establish neutrality.

The rules of PP Politics aren't exact rules, but a set of considerations: A team that is leading should be penalized more often than one that is trailing, especially late in a game. If one team has enjoyed a string of power plays, the next call should likely to go against them. There should be more scrutiny for players on the power play than the ones killing penalties.

When it comes to soft penalties, a political referee will reinforce his neutrality whenever he can. It's human nature, but even more than that, it fulfills a job description.

Dean Brown has caught onto that, and I think on some nights, he's certainly right. The Ducks can get so penalty-heavy that a ref feels obligated to scrutinize the opposition instead, and the Ducks end up with more leeway as a result. However, it's not all roses: with reputation can come a price. There are many games where referees are tough on Anaheim; they don't feel the need to remain penalty-neutral for the notoriously dirty Ducks. Also, it is worth noting that the strategy of playing dirty has a pretty high risk; it only can be successful if the team plays a dominant game on special teams and at even strength. Consider: in a five-game series against the Wild, Minnesota enjoyed 18:10 more power play time than the Ducks did, and in a six-game series against Detroit, the Wings had 19:34 more power play time than Anaheim. As much as we can say that dirty teams get benefit of PP Politics, there's still going to be stretches where games will have to be won despite huge discrepancies in man-advantage time (and I didn't mention 5-on-3s, which were also heavily skewed).

One thing I can say as a Ducks fan, this tendency for Anaheim to be shorthanded more than the opposition does teach a lesson about thick skin on penalty calls: I'm completely used to referee tendencies now. Seldom will you see me complaining about a specific call too much, because after a few years of dirty play, the Ducks have taught me the lesson: it's not good to be dependent on a referee in order to win games. Rather, the emphasis for Anaheim has been to win games regardless of referees. Well-called games or not, the key isn't so much to fixate on what should or shouldn't be a penalty, but rather to kill them off when they arise. And when shorthanded play occurs often enough, it emphasizes the need to produce at even strength.

And probably, that's the key. It's not that the Ducks are good because they play dirtier than anyone else. It's more that the Ducks are good in addition to being dirtier than anyone else, or even that they need to be really good in order to offset that feature. And even though I've grown accustomed to it, I wouldn't really complain if the Ducks cleaned up their act; there's been plenty of winning teams that didn't feature their penalty kill so prominently. I've rambled more than enough on this now; what are your thoughts? Is Anaheim strategic in their penalty prone play? Would Duck fans be disappointed if the team played more within the rules? How much of Anaheim's cup run is attributed to their penalty philosophy, or could the Ducks have won it all by playing "clean"? And if the Ducks decided to clean up their act, how long would it take for the reputation to disappear?

It's a challenging question, because most benefits are tough to quantify, whereas the cost of penalties is more evident. Still, your thoughts are welcome in the comments.

Prediction: Ducks 3, Avs 1. Goals by Weight, Pahlsson, and Bertuzzi. I again won't be free to watch this game, so let me know how it goes in the comments.

Go Ducks.