A couple of weeks ago, a co-worker and I were having a fairly intense debate about the fairness (or lack thereof, depending upon the side of debate found most convincing) of the referees in their calling of Tampa Bay Lightning games. I argued that on a game-to-game basis it could be construed the referee give the Bolts the short end of the penalty debate. To do so, however, is to form an opinion based on an extremely small sample size. I promised him a deeper analysis of Lightning games over two seasons and I was sure the larger picture would paint a different picture.
Using the NHL’s wonderful repository of statistics, I did that very thing. The results surprised even me.
For the 2009-2010 season, the Lightning were penalized the second most in the NHL, second only to the Flyers. During that season, the Lightning were penalized a total of 492 times (average of 6 penalties per game over an 82-game season; the Flyers total penalty total was 496). Compared to the league average of just over 402 penalties for the season, the Lightning’s penalty total was certainly high--but considering Rich Tocchet’s rough-nose style he coached into his players, it is hardly surprising.
What is surprising, however, is for that season, the Lightning had 8 more power play opportunities (PPOP) than their opponents through the season. The Bolts had 329 PPOP, their opponents throughout the season had 321 PPOP. Averaged over the 82-game season, the Lightning had an almost-inconsequential .10 PPOP/game advantage over their opponents. When taken a game at a time, it is easy to claim injustice against the Lightning--9 times during the season, the Bolts had 3 or more PPOP fewer than their opponent. The season-long compilation of the statistics, however, paint a different--and equitable--picture.
For the 2010-2011 season under new coach Guy Boucher, the Bolts were not even close to the most penalized team in the league, getting called for penalties only 379 times (17th in the league, over 100 penalties fewer than the league-leading Pittsburgh Penguins), and 6 fewer penalties per game fewer than the league average of 384. It’s important to note that the league called 500 less penalties in 2010-2011 (11,540 penalties) than in 2009-2010 (12,064).
Moving to the PPOP for last season, one would expect the penalties to be considerably different from the 2009 campaign, given the wide difference between the number of penalties called and the lower penalty total from the previous year. The difference is tremendous.
The referees officiating the Lightning games gave the Bolts 334 PPOP, up from the previous year’s 329 PPOP. For the Bolts’ opponents, the referees only gave them 304 PPOP, down significantly from the previous year’s 321. While the difference in coaching and playing styles from last year to the year prior partly explains the difference, in my opinion it doesn’t capture the whole wide difference between the ’09 PPOP and the ’10 PPOP. Averaged out over the course of the entire season, the Lightning got .37 more PPOP per game than their opponents (roughly 1 more PP every 3 games).
One item worth noting is the difference in penalties called vs. PPOP. Note that in the past two seasons the Lightning have had 329 and 334 PPOP, but the Lightning have been called for 492 and 379 penalties in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, respectively. The difference in these numbers is the "penalties called" takes into account not only major and minor penalties, but also misconducts of the 10-minute or game varieties. Additionally, the PPOP doesn’t take into account matching penalties (5 minute major per team for fighting, for instance).
In conclusion, while there are potentially many reasons (and several of them statistically incalcuable) for the perceived game-to-game penalty bias of the NHL referees against the Bolts, it appears through two full seasons of analysis that relationship bias is not a factor against the Bolts--in fact, if there is a bias, it’s in the Bolts favor.