Disallowed goals? NHL has a bigger problem

Updated: May 2, 2007, 6:54 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

Call these the White-Knuckle Playoffs.

Goals are at a premium, and every time the red light does go on, the second part of the scoring process begins.

Will it count? What will Big Brother back in Toronto say?

Every good goal is a major achievement, as precious as every made putt in a major championship.

The fact that disallowed goals seem to be as frequent as legal ones (Ottawa had two goals count and two waved off in Monday's Game 3 against New Jersey) means fans in the arena and watching on television are learning, like in a Florida election, that nothing counts until it goes through some form of judicial review.

And even then, the final decision might not make sense.

For example, look at the disputed Buffalo goal in Game 4 against the Rangers on Tuesday. Pretty much everybody in the industry knows that puck was in; but it didn't count, we are told, because it could not be determined beyond a shadow of a doubt that the puck crossed the line.

Well how, precisely, is that different from when a goal is reviewed and confirmed when a goalie's glove containing the puck is detected over the goal line? Nobody can actually see the puck, but everybody knows it's in.

The frequency of spine-tingling goal reviews and disallowed scores also seems to underscore the fact these playoffs are witnessing a stunning and disturbing drop-off in goal scoring.

And the grumbling has started.

If we're back to 1-0 and 2-1 games every night, some players are asking, what was the point of all those rule changes and adjustments? Why were players forced to discard habits they had learned in years of training if the result was going to be the same? Through Tuesday's games, an average of 4.9 goals are being scored per NHL playoff contest this spring, and the figure seems to be going down.

On the postseason's opening night back on April 11, four games produced 30 goals combined. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of this week, six games produced 21 goals. The Vancouver Canucks, for crying out loud, are in the second round and have scored 20 goals in 11 games.

You might point out that goals become dearer in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Correct.

But what's interesting is that although last season's difference between scoring in the regular season and the playoffs was a half-goal (6.2 in the regular season to 5.7 in the playoffs), it's down a full goal (5.9 to 4.9) in this campaign. We're basically back to where we started, statistically, before the lockout.

Now, don't expect the NHL to acknowledge this. After all, it didn't acknowledge there was a problem with scoring after it started fixing it. Instead, the league tried to discredit the messengers. Don't hold that against the NHL; it's just its style. Deny, deny and deny again is always the first play out of the league's corporate playbook, whether the hot topic is head shots or scoring or attendance. And yes, low-scoring hockey games can be excellent entertainment, as the Rangers and Sabres are proving in the best series of the second round. But they also can be brutally boring, as the Canucks and the Ducks have been demonstrating throughout the postseason.

But how did this happen? In terms of improved offense from last season, how did the progress disappear so quickly? And why, unless something changes, is it not likely to come back?

Some ideas:

Rules slippage
The league has done very, very well in terms of maintaining the standard on interference, hooking and holding, particularly in the neutral zone and generally in the offensive zone.

When the new rules standards were introduced, there were complaints that there weren't enough so-called "battles" for the puck along the boards, and gradually there has been a relaxation of the rules in those instances.

Now, however, we're regularly seeing defensemen taking out forwards before they've even had a chance to get the puck, thus allowing a teammate to pick up the loose change and clear the zone.

This is an offense killer, and it's getting worse.

New premium on skating
Without the ability to hook and hold, certain types of players have found themselves weeded out of the league, particularly those less adept at the skating part of the game. Speed and quickness are the crucial qualities teams are looking for, rather than size and strength.

But fast, quick players tend to naturally be much more efficient defenders, which means one of the new NHL's side effects has been to produce an influx of better defensive players. The checking has never been this good, particularly now that players are being coached to ditch the lazy habits of the past and are encouraged to focus on perfecting defensive positioning and technique.

Shot blocking
Once something done by a few courageous players in the third period and overtime of playoff games, this is now an art practiced by all players from the first minute of the first period on.

Expanding the offensive zone by moving the blue lines out toward center has increased offensive-zone possession time and motivated teams to pack down more tightly around their goal areas to cut down on open space. In practice, this means that five-on-five situations in the offensive zone are starting to look remarkably like power plays as the attacking team moves the puck around the perimeter.

Once a shot is taken, however, five shot-blockers on the other team step forward, and that means the puck might never reach the goaltender. More and more, you're seeing point men deliberately shoot wide of the net in an attempt to avoid shot-blockers and possibly get a helpful ricochet off the end boards to create a more favorable scoring chance.

Goaltending equipment
If slightly reducing the size of goalie pads and protective gear had any effect, it clearly was tiny. The size and athleticism of the men in masks is more apparent than ever, and the absence of available shooting area compared with 20 years ago is still as substantial. Goalies, it's fair to say, are back in charge again. And two of them, Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur, are up for the Hart Trophy.

The neutral-zone trap
Taking out hooking and interference, as well as removing the red line for two-line passes, has made it easier for teams to navigate through the neutral-zone trap effectively. That said, the trap is more prevalent than ever. Every team plays it to some degree, and the sight of four defensive players skating backward through the neutral zone has become a staple of every playoff game.

A feature of European hockey has made its way into the NHL game, the mutually-agreed-upon line change. When this happens, a defensive player retrieves the puck in his end, then stands behind his net while both teams change. The team that ostensibly should be forechecking, then, simply waits at the blue line until the game resumes.

Watch for it. You never saw it before the lockout.

Coaching
Most current NHL head coaches learned or perfected their craft in the Dead Puck Era (1995-2004) and are defense-first coaches. There just isn't a Don Coryell of the hockey set out there.

Only the Buffalo Sabres are playing an attacking game in these playoffs, with the Rangers and Senators at least embracing a quick, counterattack style. As with a politician, the No. 1 priority of every NHL coach is to stay in office. The most favored approach to reaching that goal remains playing a clogging, checking, conservative style.

Until teams are rewarded for trying to score goals, the vast majority won't bother to try. More to the point, until goalies are made smaller or nets larger and the chance of being able to turn a scoring opportunity into an actual goal improves, coaches are going to embrace goal prevention.

So, is the game we're seeing in these playoffs more attractive and exciting than it was before the lockout? The answer probably is yes. But the nature of the sport and the powerful sense of speed, creativity and imagination it evokes are inextricably linked to the offensive part of the game.

Hockey can't be soccer. So, although apologists will try to argue that hockey's excitement is based more on scoring chances than scoring, the fact is this sport needs a minimum level of scoring, at least an average of six goals per game.

The NHL made it back there after a decade-long drought. But now it's gone again.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.