An article from Nate Silver at 538 the other day showed how penalties in game 7 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are called much less frequently than any other game in the series as well as the regular season. This article lead me to think about how the common trope of “Let Them Play” has come to mean the fairest ending should come with 5 on 5 play. But is this belief that 5 on 5 is always the fairest situation to decide a game correct?
5 on 5 play is the fairest situation possible in hockey when not taking any variables into effect, but let’s keep in mind what “fair” means in this instance. In a perfect world, playoff games would be entirely 5 on 5. We would know the results occurred because one team was better than the other and not because one team took advantage of their powerplay opportunities. Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect world. Penalties occur and do affect the game. The median power play percentage during the regular season was 18.2%. So we can assume that power plays will convert about once every five times they occur (give or take a few). Now, this will be different for every team based on their respective power play percentages, but this is a good reference when thinking from a top level. Is trying to keep games at 5 on 5, as Nate Silver’s piece showed the NHL does, a fair way to decide the most important game of a series?
When we think about the “perfect world” scenario, we know that the fairest way to play is at 5 on 5. That changes when we think about real world situations however. Physical teams and teams that commit a higher number of penalties will actually have an advantage in game 7 compared to all other games in the series. Instead of creating a balanced play, calling less penalties gives an unfair advantage that occurs at no other time during the season. Put another way, there are two outcomes that can occur when a player commits a penalty: it is either called or not. When it is (correctly) called, the team who did not commit the penalty gets an advantage in the form of a power play. When it is not called, the team who committed the penalty does not get punished for breaking the rules. Either way, a team is going to get an advantage. It might as well be the team who actually deserves the advantage.
Fairness aside, a talking point often muttered by the “Let Them Play” crowd is that officials shouldn’t decide the outcome of the game; an interesting, yet poorly thought out argument. Let’s break this down the same way we did when we looked at who benefits from either calling or not calling a penalty. Inducing 5 on 5 play is actually a form of letting the officials decide the game, although many people miss it because it is not as explicit as calling a penalty. When we don’t see any penalties called, we assume the officials aren’t affecting the game. This is similar to assuming a player isn’t playing well just because he isn’t scoring goals. Both are cases of not knowing the true signal. Anything but making the calls when they need to be called can be considered outside human influence, and not making calls affects the game whether we say so or not.
This all comes back to the fact that 5 on 5 has become synonymous with fair. I understand not calling borderline penalties in favor of wanting to stay consistent, but that is entirely different than calling fewer penalties to keep the game at 5 on 5. It is fine if a team wants to be physical, but a team breaking the rules shouldn’t be rewarded because the NHL doesn’t want to create a “controversy” by calling the game the way it should be.
I want 5 on 5 in overtime of game 7 as much as the next person, but above all else, I want the game to be fair. Not calling penalties in these situations is the opposite of fair. Game 7 is already one of the most exciting and stressful moments in hockey. If we don’t want officials to decide the game, they have to make the calls, even when that results in a power play in overtime of game 7.