Scoring is up in the NHL and everyone — even goalies — seems happy about it
'The games are very entertaining now, even for us players,' says Nashville's Pekka Rinne
The league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning scored a power-play goal in its road game against the Los Angeles Kings a week ago that was a joy to watch.
Right wing Nikita Kucherov, the Art Ross Trophy scoring-race leader, made a nifty backhand move to slide the puck back to Victor Hedman at the point.
Hedman gave a return pass to Kucherov. The rapid puck movement opened up a cross-ice passing lane to captain Steven Stamkos. He was at his favourite spot, the left face-off dot, and his one-timer gave Tampa Bay a 5-1 lead late in the second period.
After the bang-bang-bang play, the camera caught Kings goalie Jonathan Quick leaning on his right pad. He was exhausted. He looked like a member of the Washington Generals, that nightly punching-bag of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Standard Stammer.<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TBLvsLAK?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TBLvsLAK</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/GoBolts?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#GoBolts</a> <a href="https://t.co/Ub5UdtGgS7">pic.twitter.com/Ub5UdtGgS7</a>—@TBLightning
Yes, this isn't your father's NHL anymore. Maybe not even you're big brother's. We're not quite back to the glory days of the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s or the incredible firewagon Montreal Canadiens a decade earlier. But the NHL has transformed itself from a tedious trap game that was contaminated by clutch-and-grab tendencies to an entertaining high-octane skill spectacle.
"The first thing I heard when I broke in was to bulk up, get bigger, get stronger," said Vancouver Canucks' 33-year-old centre Jay Beagle, who won a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals last spring. "Now it's lean out. Get faster.
"Kids can come into the league right now at [age] 19, 180 pounds and dominate. You couldn't do that in the slower, clutch-and-grab game. Now the game is tailored to speed. It makes for a more interesting game and one that is more exciting to play in."
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The NHL released some mid-season statistics to illustrate the increase in offence.
Goals-per-game average has increased to 6.1 goals from 5.9 at the halfway mark last year. This was the highest goals-per-game average since 6.2 in 2005-06.
A team has scored seven or more goals in a game 41 times this season. That total is the most at the midway point since 70 in 1995-96.
Twenty-two players have scored 20 or more goals through the first 635 games. That's the most since 30 players hit the 20-goal mark at the midpoint mark in 1996-97.
Kucherov hit the 70-point mark in his 43rd game on Tuesday; that's the quickest to 70 points since Jaromir Jagr turned the trick in his 38th game with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1999-00.
Thirteen players had scored 50 or more points by the midway mark last weekend and of this group only Sidney Crosby, Blake Wheeler and Patrick Kane are over the age of 25.
There has been a record-setting pace of 285 comebacks, including 110 occasions when a team overcame at least a one-goal deficit in the third period.
Nifty fact: Sidney Crosby now has 20 goals for the 12th time in his career, tying Mario Lemieux for most 20 goal seasons in franchise history. <a href="https://t.co/itlri0oQU4">pic.twitter.com/itlri0oQU4</a>—@penguins
"Some of the rule changes have been beneficial to the young, the fast and the skilled," Nashville Predators veteran goalie Pekka Rinne said. "I feel there are more power plays. All in all, you simply see more odd-man rushes, most teams are playing an aggressive style and you don't see teams playing the trap.
"The games are very entertaining now, even for us players. You have to be ready or us goalies will be yanked."
The jury is still out on how much the streamlined goaltender equipment has played a role in the offensive increase.
The main reason for the upswing in offence has been rule changes that have eliminated the clutch-and-grab, interfering ways of the past.
Hitting is substantially down since the rugged Kings won their second Stanley Cup in three years in 2013-14. Heavy hockey used to mean playing physical. Now when a coach or player employs the buzz word (Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock leads the league by using the word heavy in almost every gathering with reporters) it means something else.
"Being heavy isn't getting on a scale and measuring yourself, it's a state of mind," Babcock said last week.
"It's heavy on offence. It's having the puck, it's getting the puck back all the time, it's checking the puck, it's putting your work in front of your skill, it's being determined offensively, instead of coming down and having a rush and being one and done. It's multiple-shot shifts, it's having some jam."
Teams having jam has promoted a different way for general managers to construct their rosters.
It's no longer the top-six, bottom-six forward lines. Most teams have three skilled lines and the good clubs have a fourth line that can skate, cycle the puck and chip in its share of goals.
Most teams have replaced that physical, hard-hitting fifth defencemen with one who has offensive capabilities.
The younger, faster and more skilled lineups have promoted a different style of game. The game features more back-checking that forces more turnovers. These turnovers are swiftly turned into odd-man rushes.
D-men are more active in all offensive areas from the rush to even becoming involved in the down-low cycle. They also pinch more often and the aggressive ways also lead to more odd-man rushes.
Even a simple rule change like defensive zone face-offs, in which the defensive team centre has to put his stick on the ice first before the linesman drops the puck gives the edge to the offensive team to start with the puck.
"It puts the defensive guy in a tough spot because you set first and you're showing your approach first," Beagle said.
Another nice component of the increase in offence that goal-scoring continued to be a big part of the playoffs last spring.
A pair of the outcomes in the five-game final between the Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights were 6-4 in the opener and 6-2 in Game 4. In 2014, the Kings defeated the New York Rangers with scores of 3-2, 5-4, 3-0, 1-2, 3-2.
Yes, it's a speed game now and a welcome transformation. Predators defenceman Ryan Ellis recalled when he returned to action midway through last year after off-season knee surgery, the speed of the game had gone up a gear.
"Just trying to catch up was like trying to catch up to a runaway train," Ellis said. "Guys were just flying."