Penalties and Playing With a Lead

In perhaps a bit of gamesmanship prior to Monday night's Caps/Leafs game, Ted Leonsis noted on his blog that Toronto is a team that "knows how to earn power plays" and that they "have more than us this season - that is for sure."

That last fact might surprise some people, and if that one didn't, you probably wouldn't find too many folks who would have known that Toronto has the largest differential between the number of power-play opportunities they've had and the number of times they've been shorthanded in the League (28; the Caps are third-worst at minus-20).

How can that be? Is it a vast Leafswing conspiracy orchestrated by the League to prop up Toronto's team? Doubtful (and if that's the plan, it's failing miserably). Are players like Kris Versteeg such dynamic offensive threats that opposing skaters have no choice but to foul them, lest they march unimpeded to the goal? Not quite.

More likely than either of those, one of the reasons that the Leafs have such a splendid penalty plus-minus is that, well, they kinda stink.

To be more precise, they've lost a lot of games and have a bad goal differential, which means that they're frequently trailing their opponents, and that's the key point here. Why? Because teams that trail draw more penalties than do teams playing with a lead [and you really should be sure to take some time and read the post at that link]. The Caps, of course, are towards the opposite end of the spectrum from the Leafs, and it may be one reason they have such a poor penalty ratio.

Now, this doesn't mean that every game will follow that pattern, or that every team that spends the bulk of its time playing with a lead will be on the short end of the power-play stick and every lottery-bound loser will have more than its fair share of power-play practice over the course of the season. But what it does mean is that games are both played and officiated to the score. And I don't think that Leonsis or Caps fans want to test the hypothesis by watching their team switch positions with the likes of the Leafs for any extended period of time.

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