The National Hockey League is back now after the long lockout that began in September, 2004 and wiped out the entire 2004-2005 season. One of the ways the League hoped to bring back fans and revenue was new rule changes to promote more offense. The neutral zone was shrunk, the offensive zones were expanded, officials were instructed to call interference penalties religiously, and goaltenders' equipment and area behind the net where they could play the puck were restricted. Those were the most prominent changes. Many fans and most cynics wondered if the rules would be effective at all.
Early in the 2005-2006 season, though, it looks like they have been.
A lot of goals have been scored already in the NHL. One of the biggest gripes about the sport in previous years was the number of 1-0, 2-1, and even 0-0 tied games every season. Derisive non-fans and fans alike complained that it had become boring, that the game was being coached to death and the neutral zone defensive traps were standard with most teams, particularly the Detroit Red Wings who had won several Stanley Cups with their stingy play. But those days may be over. There were only two 2-1 games last Saturday night, and there were a couple of 3-2 games, but most of the games that night saw wild offense. (Ironically, the Minnesota Wild were one of the non-wild teams, heh, but I digress...).
First of all, the Atlanta Thrashers, one of the teams that have resided in the league basement since their first season in 1999, routed Washington Capitals by a score of 8-1. The Ottawa Senators blanked Buffalo Sabres 5-0, the only shutout of the night. But the most telling games about the effectiveness of the new rules were the Montreal Canadiens/Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins/Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues/San Jose Sharks, and Edmonton Oilers/Vancouver Canucks match ups.
First of all, the Penguins, the undisputed worst team of the 2003-2004 season, who had already begun the 05-06 campaign 0-2, looked to be headed for their first win in quite a while. Mario Lemieux's pack stoked themselves to 6-4 lead in part because of "Super Mario's" first two-goal game since February 2003 and Sidney Crosby's first-ever NHL goal, something most hockey fans have been waiting to see ever since the hype about this kid started almost two years ago. Boston, however, spoiled the night for that dynamic duo and tied it up and won in overtime on a Glen Murray goal just as a Penguins tripping penalty expired. That left the pitiful Penguins still 0-3.
After suffering unsurprising losses to the Detroit Red Wings in their first two outings since being eliminated by the Sharks in the '04 playoffs, the St. Louis Blues looked like they would get their first win of the season Saturday night. I was at that game and witnessed the pudding the proof was in firsthand. After going down 2-0, the Blues came back and took the lead 3-2, all in the first. They added to that lead and were up by two goals, 5-3, by the third period. The Sharks, however, ended up tying it up and winning 7-6, the winning goal coming in the final two minutes. Bluenote Jamal Mayers, who doesn't score very often, notched two goals, a rare feat for him. He scored the sixth and final Blues goal of the night from behind the net, a tricky shot banked off of Sharks goalie Nabokov. That was indeed a roller coaster of a game, one that unfortunately left the Blues in the same situation as the Penguins, 0-3.
The Oilers won over the 'Nucks 4-3 in overtime. Again the game saw leads squandered, first a 2-1 lead by Edmonton was killed, then a 3-2 lead by Vancouver was obliterated.
The Canadiens, with their 5-4 road win over the Leafs, now start the season with 3 wins (3-0-0) for the first time since 1978-1979. It was a topsy-turvy game again, with both teams trading leads over the course of it. Mike Ribeiro scored the game winner for the Habs with 4:27 left in the third. It was only their third victory at Air Canada Centre. Toronto defensemen Aki Berg and Wade Belak were both present on the ice for the game-tying and game-winning goals. Leafs coach Pat Quinn lamented about their defensive zone coverage that night. But maybe that defense would have been adequate pre-lockout. Maybe he's not considering that this is The New NHL.
What did all but one of those games I highlighted have in common? Squandered two-goal leads going into the third. It used to be almost impossible to win a game when trailing by two or more goals going into the third. A two-goal lead going into the final period, pre-lockout, was almost a guaranteed win. Like I said, I was at the Blues/Sharks game and witnessed in person the new rules working. I was also at the Blues home opener against the Wings a few nights before. The Blues almost tied the latter game up, scoring two in the third after being down 4-1 (Detroit scored 4 after St. Louis started the game 1-0). Coming back to tie it up after being down two against Detroit used to be almost unheard of pre-lockout. It would have happened that Thursday night with a tiny bit of luck, as the Blues - with the goalie pulled and the extra attacker - launched a flurry of shots right in front of the net in the final two seconds. They did the same Saturday night vs. San Jose. Wings coach Dave Lewis said, and I'm paraphrasing, "hey, things are different now, a lead going into the third is almost meaningless."
What he meant was, and a lot of other hockey commentators are agreeing, that anything can happen. There is more offense now and no team should now sit comfortably on a two, or even three-goal lead. The Blues, and several other teams last Saturday night, learned that bitter lesson.
Many of the thirteen goals scored between the Blues and the Sharks last Saturday were power play goals. The Blues scored once on a 5-on-3 power play and the Sharks got one of their goals on a penalty shot. The penalties are being called fairly consistently so far, something the league had promised. I can clearly see a crack down on interference, "clutching and grabbing," which pundits have claimed have been slowing down and hurting the flashy, speedy scorers of the league, leaving the net-crashers like Keith Tkachuk with the best goal totals. It was feared that the Wayne Gretzkys and the Brett Hulls of hockey were of a bygone era. But now maybe things will be different. I could definitely tell the players were getting the idea and letting the other team skate with little or no interference. Often they still attempted to muddle their progress down the ice by carefully putting their stick out or hounding them, but when they went too far they paid for it in the sin bin. Maybe this is the perfect time for Sidney Crosby, who has been dubbed "the next Wayne Gretzky," to be beginning his NHL career.
I have also noticed that the bigger offensive zones are having an impact. There are a lot less breaks in the action and the puck tends to stay mostly in the offensive zones. Both the Blues and the Sharks were cycling the puck well and sustaining long periods of pressure. There were also not many icing calls, this partly due to the new rules on icing. The game was certainly action-packed and I enjoyed it, even though my Blues lost.
Another rule I saw broken for the first time was the restriction of the goalie behind the net. Now they can only handle the puck behind the net in a special trapezoid-shaped area. Nabokov strolled out of that area once with the puck and was whistled for a delay of game penalty, much to the sheer delight of fans around me. "New rules, Nabokov!" and "Hey, ha ha, that's the new rule you dork!" and other similar jeers were aimed in his direction by me and my joyful seatmates and we were pretty close to the ice so I think he heard us. Unfortunately, though, the Blues didn't score in the ensuing power play. But seeing that situation for the first time was both fun and educational.
But both goaltenders were good that night, despite there being so many goals. New Blues netminder Patrick LaLime made many really good saves, some with plenty of traffic in front of him. I was amazed at how he even saw the puck coming a couple of times. Again, this counterintuitive development is attributed to the new rules. The number of shots on goal that night wasn't unusual, but there were definitely more quality scoring chances. More room in the offensive zone gave the players more room to make plays and more room to just fire the puck on net. No whistles for two-line passes made for great offensive plays and less interruptions in the action. I think a few of the goals may have even had something to do with the smaller goalie equipment. I have a feeling that shutouts are going to be a lot rarer. Defensive players have their work cut out for them this season.
The real question, though, is will this increase in offense continue? Will we still be seeing plenty of 7-6 or 6-5 games towards the end of the season, or will coaches find new ways to be stingy as they get used to the rule changes? Will crazy things that nobody can predict at this point, like radical changes in defensive plays, happen? Sorry for this old cliche, but only time will tell. Maybe in a few years, again, people will be bitching about there not being enough offense and rules will be tinkered with again. Let's savor the new surge in puck action while we can, though. The new rules seem to be working - for now.