by PuckStopsHere on 05/17/09 at 03:19 AM ET
It was suggested in the comments of my semi-final playoff predictions that referees have been helping Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins win in the playoffs. This is presumably because Crosby is the best North American player in the NHL and arguably the best player in the game. The NHL’s marketing is significantly tied to Crosby and the Penguins. I decided to look into these allegations and see if there might be some truth to them.
The most obvious comment that somewhat discredits this allegation is the Alexander Ovechkin should have been suspended for his knee-on-knee hit on Sergei Gonchar. If the NHL was favoring Pittsburgh, the non-suspension of Ovechkin certainly makes no sense at all. That is clearly the biggest incident that blows a hole in the theory.
In order to take a closer look, I asked The Forechecker (Dirk Hoag) since he has done some work to keep track of penalties drawn. He was nice enough to write this piece about penalties taken and drawn so far in the playoffs.
Looking at his work, we see that the man who has drawn the most penalties so far in the playoffs is Evgeni Malkin with 12. He is a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is the kind of player who has the puck a lot and can make moves that sometimes embarrass the player trying to check him. The only way to contain Malkin at times is to take a penalty. Crosby has drawn nine penalties. That ties him for third overall. He is behind Milan Lucic of Boston and tied with Corey Perry of Anaheim and teammate Jordan Staal. It is more important to look at things in terms of penalty +/-. It is the difference between penalties drawn and penalties taken that leads to an advantage. Brothers Jordan and Eric Staal (the latter from Carolina) lead the league with a +6. Crosby is at +4, which puts him in a four way tie at seventh place.
Crosby is a skilled player who, like Malkin, often has the puck and often puts the player checking him in a disadvantage where he winds up drawing a penalty. Crosby is good at drawing penalties. He was +14 with 43 penalties drawn this season and second in the league in 2007/08 with a +39 and 56 penalties drawn. It is no surprise he can draw penalties.
During the regular season, Pittsburgh had 360 power plays and 347 penalty kills. They tend to draw a few more penalties than they take, but not by a significant margin. By sitting team penalty minute leader Eric Godard, who has not played at all in the playoffs, one would expect those numbers to improve for the Penguins. During the playoffs, the Penguins have had 66 power plays and 49 penalty kills so far. That is an advantage for the team. It is not unreasonable, but it is better than the regular season. If we break the numbers down by series, against Philadelphia the Penguins had 32 power plays and 30 penalty kills. Against Washington they had 34 power plays and 19 penalty kills. The Penguins have basically drawn penalties at a constant rate throughout the playoffs. The difference between their two series is that Washington had an abnormally low number of penalties that they drew. This is unusual, but quite possibly just a chance outcome.
It is clear that the Penguins have not had any increase in penalties called in their favor in the playoffs this season. That part of the conspiracy theory does not hold up to the facts. However, they have drawn fewer penalties in the Washington series than is normal. That fact is counter-balanced by the lack of a suspension to Alexander Ovechkin in the series, which would have strongly tipped the series in favor of the Penguins.
While it is true that NHL marketing would like to see Sidney Crosby go as deep as possible in the playoffs, as he is a player that is easy to market, there is no evidence that they are tilting the playing field to make it happen. At best the evidence is inconclusive (which is often the way conspiracy theorists like things - they can keep believing their conspiracy without actually having to show it to be true). If the NHL wanted to tilt things in Pittsburgh’s favor, the easiest way to do this would have been to suspend Alexander Ovechkin for his knee-on-knee hit on Sergei Gonchar. They didn’t. That is a strong argument against this conspiracy theory. The reason things remain inconclusive is that Pittsburgh drew a low number of penalties in their second round series versus Washington. Note that this is different from the claim that whenever Pittsburgh gets in trouble they get a penalty called in their favor which was first advanced. That isn’t an important distinction to most conspiracy theorists. The fix is still on, even if they had the details of the fix wrong at first and facts that dispute their argument, such as the Ovechkin non-suspension can be ignored.
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