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Archive for December 7, 2006

Dec. 7, 2006 — The “other” hockey

Last night I went to a National Hockey League game.

Now, since starting this website, I’ve been to other professional games in the lower leagues. I even witnessed the Philadelphia Phantoms winning the 1998 Calder Cup by beating the St. John Flames in the old Spectrum. The sound inside that building was such that I could feel the insides of my ears rattle.

This was my first chance to see “The New NHL,” which came out of the 2004-05 lockout. The lords of the NHL wanted a more open and less physical contest, so they adopted many of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s rules on faceoffs, icing, and obstruction. Goaltender padding was reduced, as well as the area in which the goalie could play the puck from behind the goal line extended.

Oh, there were still elements of “old-time” hockey in last night’s game; there were physical confrontations in each of the three periods, and the home team started one player who actually spent the NHL lockout on a Quebec-based team in a league which has the reputation as the world’s roughest.

From my seat in the eighth row, I did notice that the style of play had changed from what it had been before the strike. It was much more of that European flow, especially on the power play.

Both teams employed the power-play style which, depending on what era of hockey that you may know, is called the “Michigan,” “umbrella,” or the “Soviet” style, where the man-up situation starts with three players high and two between the circles, then when the time is right, that third high player moves down low. That changes the team’s “M” formation into a “W”, changes the assignments, and usually allows a wing-to-wing crossing pass down low for a goal. The field hockey equivalent of this is any short corner which allows the inserter to make a hard flash to the left-wing post.

Even at even strength, you saw less chippiness than you did a few years back. Sticks were down (except for when the enforcers were on the ice) and the players stretched the game vertically with the headman pass, making play was much more direct in the building up of attacks in the neutral zone. But that directness did not necessarily lead up to the scoring areas. There were several situations in the game where open shots were passed up in favor of continued possession or an extra pass. Those open shots would have been taken as few as three years ago.

But this is the new NHL, where outright thuggery is down, scoring is up, and TV timeouts are used to scrape ice shavings from the slot and the crease to make that area in front of the goalie nice and smooth. It’s indeed a new game.