Are the Refs Screwing the Pens? by @BrianK_PI



NHL referees suck.

Fact. True Statement. They really do. As do NFL refs, NBA refs, MLB umpires, and ESPECIALLY B1G college football refs. In fact, ask anyone out there who has a favorite team in any sport, and chances are that they're going to tell you that the refs suck. It's just a part of the way we view sports. Those who tune in can tell you about the clear penalties that those in black and white miss; the home crowd howls in disgust when calls go against their team. The refs are always out to get your favorite team, and they'll let the other guys get away with murder.

Sounds ridiculous, right? But what if the paranoia, well, isn't paranoia? What if the refs actually aren't just letting things slide, aren't just messing up some calls, but are rooting against the Pens and doing so with their whistles? Pensburgh recently ran a Penguins Thoughts piece (hat tip for the inspiration), with point #4 talking about some recent power play trends noted by Josh Yohe. As Yohe tweeted, the Pens were at a 49-30 disadvantage in power play opportunities in their previous 14 games, including having one or fewer power play opportunities in their previous 11. On the season the Pens are averaging 3.28 power play opportunities per game, ranking 18th in the league, though they're allowing 3.86 power play opportunities per game.


Not only that, but you'd expect a team that features both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to be a bit more adept at drawing penalties. After all, they've finished 12th, 6th, and 7th over the past three seasons in power play opportunities. There have been questionable calls, notably Zach Sill's ejection for a clean hit on an interference penalty, and questionable non-calls. Refs have been known to call penalties to keep games from getting out of hand; could they have been calling games to take Pittsburgh's elite power play, which was operating at a historic rate in the early part of the season, off the table and prevent it from taking over games?


The above graph shows the seven game averages for power play opportunities for both the Penguins and their opponents, with the November 11th game against the Rangers that Yohe mentioned as the start of the lack of calls marked on the graph. The first 13 games of the season were fairly evenly called, with the Penguins drawing 56 power plays (4.3 per game) and their opponents 52 (4.0 per game). However, starting with that game on the 11th things started drying up for Pittsburgh as they went on the power play just 39 times in the next 16 games (2.4 per game) while their opponents stayed relatively stable with 60 power plays (3.8 per game). The difference between those two time frames for the Pens is massive; the 4.3 power plays per game would rank first in the league over the course of the season, while the 2.4 would only be saved from being last in the league only by Boston's absolute futility this season. So what exactly happened?


Well unfortunatley, that answer is probably a lot less interesting than a refereeing controversy. The above shows the same seven game rolling average for Pens' power play opportunities since November 11th, but this time compared against the team's Corsi for percentage as a proxy for puck possession, and as you can see they both plummet over the same time frame. Generally speaking, a team will take far more penalties without the possession of the puck than they will with it. Less time with the puck leads to fewer opportunities to draw penalties, which in turn leads to fewer power play opportunities.

Now, I don't think there's a particularly strong correlation between power play opportunities and CF%, but it underlies the situation happening in Pittsburgh. Coming into the season the Pens already were facing depth issues in the top six. Blake Comeau, for as good as he's been in Pittsburgh, is better suited for a third line role. However, Pascal Dupuis' blood clot diagnosis further exacerbated the problem, and it's likely not much of a coincidence that these issues have cropped up since he's been absent from the lineup the past 13 games. Add in a significant amount of injuries that have seen Beau Bennett (9 games), Olli Maatta (6), Chris Kunitz (6), Kris Letang (5), Sidney Crosby (2), and Patric Hornqvist (2) all miss games and it was inevitable that the team would see a falloff. Given that the injuries have occurred almost entirely in the top portion of the lineup, it shouldn't be surprising that the lack of talented players capable of making plays, and drawing penalties, would have an adverse effect.

So no, the refs aren't screwing the Pens, but it's understandable to see why it might seem that way. The Penguins' power play chances fell off when affected by injuries and their opponents' did not. It's likely the Pens also ran cold a bit while facing those injury problems, but this is a team that's gone 4-for-39 (10.3%) over their past 16 games on the power play after going 21-for-56 (37.5%) before that. The refs wouldn't be responsible for that, and it's likely the reason this streak has seemed that much worse. As for the discrepancy in power plays over the past 16 games, they've been taking penalties at an alarming rate all season long. Chicago leads the league with 3.90 power plays per game; the Penguins' opponents would fall closely behind with 3.86 allowed per game. Steve Downie (22) and Evgeni Malkin (19) rank 1st and t-2nd in minor penalties taken on the year.

So do the refs suck? Of course they do. But this past month has been highlighting the Penguins' issues, not those of the officials.
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