The NHL has its issues, but the on-ice product is pretty good right now
In the midst of a wild 7-6 overtime win by Pittsburgh in Detroit on Tuesday night, Red Wings GM Ken Holland crossed paths with his Penguins counterpart Ray Shero.
"He goes, 'Hey, the new NHL,'" Shero recounted to ESPN.com on Wednesday.
"I went, 'Yeah, no kidding.'"
There's been so much focus on other issues so far this season -- everything from hits to the head to hits from behind to the economic crisis and its possible effect on NHL teams -- that it's easy to lose sight of an important fact.
"The hockey is pretty good right now," said superstar San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton. "A lot of the teams are playing the same way, too -- a lot of high-tempo games. It just seems to be a lot more teams on the offense, a lot more shots and scoring chances. It's more fun to watch."
Goal scoring is up from last season. Through Tuesday night's games, the NHL was averaging 5.9 goals per game, up from 5.6 over the same 220 games last season. That's a 66-goal difference (if the trend lasts all season, it will be a 369-goal difference). The number is also way up from the 5.0 goals per game the league was averaging through 220 games in 2003-04, the season before the lockout and all the rule changes.
"It was a good product in the past, but it just seems to be much better right now," Thornton said.
But it's not just about goals. It's about the flow of the game and scoring chances.
"We had a 1-0 game against Edmonton, and so you look at the score and you figure Boston trapped the heck out of Edmonton," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said. "That game had more chances than any game we've had this year."
More interesting, perhaps, are the wild lead changes. How many times this season have you seen a team come back from two or more goals down to win?
"Every team can hope, even if they're three or four goals down, that they're not done," Shero said. "You have a chance to come back. We were down 5-2 in the third period Tuesday night. They get a penalty and right after that, they got an interference or hooking call to give us a 5-on-3.
"Four years ago, that penalty is probably not even called. So that put us right back in the game."
The Penguins were down 5-2 and 6-4 in the third period and still rallied to win against the defending Cup champs. According to Elias Sports Bureau, a team has come back to win 22 times after being down by two or more goals this season (through Tuesday's games). That's up from 14 at the same point last season -- more than a 50 percent jump.
"It's tough to just sit back in that defend mode," said Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. "We've given up two third-period leads and lost both in a shootout. So we know what that feels like. But our games have been fun."
The New York Islanders have had a few, including blowing a 4-1 third-period lead in a 5-4 loss to Montreal.
"We've been involved in a few," Shero said. "The Edmonton game, we had a 5-0 lead and they made it 5-4 and almost tied it with 1.2 seconds left."
"It just seems like a team is never out of it," Thornton said. "We've been down a couple of goals here and there. You just come back and it's no big deal. I think the referees calling penalties like they should be, that definitely helps."
One new rule, in particular, seems to have had an effect -- the automatic faceoff in the offensive zone for a team that's going on a power play.
"I really like that," Shero said, a comment also echoed by Chiarelli. "I think it creates offense automatically."
Thornton thinks that rule change, which didn't get much attention when formally adopted last June, has been huge.
"Usually, just getting into the zone takes you maybe 15-20 seconds and sometimes 30 seconds," Thornton said. "So when you place the puck in their zone right off the start and you win the faceoff, you're automatically on the offense. It's a huge reward for the power-play team. I've already seen numerous goals that have happened because of that rule.
"I think it's a great rule. It penalizes the penalized team. That's probably one of the best rules they've come out with in the last couple of years."
Overall, the game has settled into an entertaining brand after all the changes coming out of the lockout. Those types of radical changes -- which included a massive crackdown on hooking and obstruction, teams icing the puck not being able to change players, allowing two-line passes (no red line) and limiting the goalies' ability to play the puck -- take a few seasons before all 700-odd players become fully adapted. Now, in the fourth season with these rules, we're seeing the full effect.
"The players are so good," Shero said. "They're free to do their thing. The speed and skill level of the players now is so good. The coaching is good. The game, I think, has been entertaining. Of course, there's the odd clunker, but the games are more entertaining than not, and I think it's good for the fans."
"You tend to look at the negative things, the things that are at issue, and the actual product itself gets lost in the shuffle sometimes," said the Bruins' GM.
Hey, we're still going to focus on those other issues, but here's a reminder that the game is fun to watch right now.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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