BACK TO REALITY

 

Wanted Ė cheap Ė a reliable defibrillator.  Any sellers?

I think since opening night my heart has stopped about 10 times, and in all honesty, if this keeps up, I may not make it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs!

Folks, Iíd like to officially welcome you to a new era.  The NHL weíve envisioned and longed for so long has finally seen the light of day, and I for one couldnít be happier.  In the past few weeks Iíve found myself running, not walking home just to catch any and every game I can.  Up until last week, these were only meaningless preseason games!  Then, the night weíd been waiting for finally arrived: Opening night, Wednesday, October 5, 2005, the night the NHL finally returned from the dark doldrums of a year long lockout.  And return it did, and with it an opening night attendance record was shattered.  No less than 10 of the 15 matches on this night were reported as sellouts, with at least half of the sellouts reporting attendance exceeding the allowed maximum on any given night.

So what has prompted this change of heart amongst the same fans who said theyíd never support this league or its players again?  Who is responsible for bringing back the NHL to excitement levels previously witnessed prior to the first round of expansion?  Can the NHL keep the game interesting and keep the fans coming back?  Will the referees finally get it right, all inconsistencies aside?  Early indications are a resounding yes!  All I can say is the NHL may want to consider making the penalty boxes bigger before long.

The fact there are no more ties I think plays a huge factor.  No more will we witness a game where a team simply ďplays for the tieĒ in fear of losing a valuable point to a divisional rival.  The tie has been effectively eliminated, so if the teams canít settle matters 4 on 4, after five minutes, a shootout.  Weíve already seen a few shootouts in this young season, and I have to tell you, as much as the media and the team on the losing end may hate it (Pat Quinn anyone?), the fans love it.  The stopping heart I spoke of?  Half of these took place during shootouts.  While itís true the team who loses a shootout still gets a point, at least there will be a decided winner in any given game.  This is huge and at some point is going to make the difference between a team making the playoffs or watching on the sidelines.  As long as they never ever decide a game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with it, Iím fine with the concept.

Two of the most overlooked rule changes this year, of which there were many, have to be without a doubt the removal of the red line and the return of tag up offsides.  In the games Iíve seen anyway, the flow of the game we talked about for so many years as having gone by the wayside, is back.  One thing Iím finding is some of the so called veterans of the game are really finding it hard keeping up with some of the speedy new skaters in the new NHL.

If you long for the days when speed and skill won over defensive traps, then you will be very pleasantly surprised with the new product on the ice.  Scoring over the first 40 games averaged more than six goals per game (almost double the previous yearís figures).  Since the rules are now actually being enforced (for the most part), there were almost three times as many power plays as there was a year ago at this time - um, better make that two years ago!  The reduction in goalie equipment dimensions Iím sure has played a big part as well.

If you havenít already watched a dozen games this season, then what are you waiting for?  The NHL game weíve longed for throughout the past decade has finally returned.  Iíve had so many flashbacks over the past week itís unreal.

As for predictions?  Itís way too early, but Iím really liking Ottawa, Edmonton, Nashville, Buffalo and Montreal in the early going.  Iím told Philadelphia and Calgary are supposed to turn heads this year as well, but as of yet they havenít proven it.  As for Tampa Bay repeating?  After losing their goalie Khabibulin to Chicago I canít see it happening unless John Grahame has a year of J.S. Giguere proportions, and definitely not unless the dynamic line of Lecavalier, St. Louis and Richards can get back to their Conn Smythe/Art Ross form.  So far they havenít done much, but itís still early.  If you believe the online polls, only 4% of people who answered believe Tampa can repeat, meaning the other 96% think they wonít.  Time will tell.  And donít look now, but the New York Rangers are leading their division.  Yes, you read correctly.

If I have a concern, it would have to be the officiating (what else is new?).  What I like is at the very least the hooking and holding infractions are getting called, even if it means a five on three in overtime.  Far be it from me to put a monkey wrench in what the NHL is trying to do, but Iíve already observed a couple of games where the referees either call the game one sided, or inconsistently as they did in the pre-lockout era.  In a recent Ottawa-Montreal game, a goaltender interference call in the crease was missed and what should have been a disallowed goal was allowed to stand as the eventual winning goal.  In another game between Edmonton-Los Angeles, perhaps itís just me, but for Edmonton it was a parade to the box, with the odd even-upper to Los Angeles thrown in for good measure.  Then, the very next game for Edmonton, not to single out Rob Schick, but he missed Johan Hedberg playing the puck in the new zone where goalies arenít allowed to play the puck, another cross check which was a borderline boarding infraction, and at least 5-10 hooking/holding calls.  Zero tolerance my foot.  Thankfully, these have (so far) been one off situations, but it really got me thinking just how long the crackdown on the rules will continue.  The NHL says they are committed to making it happen long term, and I hope they do. Then again, to quote a colleague of mine, the NHL is the Coolest Game On Earth, and it only got that way because they are consistent.  Consistent at being inconsistent.  Nowadays, unorthodox might be a better way to put it.

NOTES & TIDBITS

You can really see the effect the NHL lockout has had on many players, as the amount of groin and knee injuries are at an all time high to start the season.  As expected, the players who played last season, be it in the AHL, overseas or otherwise, are benefiting not only from the new rules but from an extra year of conditioning.  At least one player (whose name I wonít mention out of respect) was suspended by his team because he apparently showed up to training camp out of shape.  You think maybe the fact there was no season had anything to do with it?  To this day the offending team has yet to give a logical explanation for this.  I wonít mention their name either.

Speaking of groin injuries, the Atlanta Thrashers of late are reeling over not one, but two goalies out of their lineup.  I find it funny how so much can change in less than a week.  They went from beating Washington 8-1 on the first Saturday of the season, to being shut out 2-0 by Montreal the night after the Habs suffered their first loss of the season, and from there they were embarrassed 9-1 in their own building by Toronto of all teams.  With all due respect to Ilya Kovalchuk, perhaps his fat new contract has been more of a distraction than anything, because they certainly donít have it together right now, and they definitely donít have the goaltending theyíre going to need.

A word of the wise to Sean Avery: itís about time you kept your mouth shut before we end up with another Todd Bertuzzi incident on our hands.  I find it funny how Don Cherry was put on a seven second delay for his remarks on national television about visors and French Canadians, yet Avery gets away with a slap on the wrist for his own related disrespectful comments.  But now he allegedly made ďsome commentsĒ towards Georges Laraque of the Edmonton Oilers during a recent game at the Staples Center.  As of this writing itís been reported Avery labeled Laraque a ďmonkeyĒ, an allegation he denies.  Hey Sean, this is exactly the type of negative vibes the NHL is trying to get rid of, remember, or do you care?  Oh yeah, thatís right, you donít.  One thing you have to admit though, at least heís producing on the ice, for the time being anyway.  I get the feeling there will be more developments to this story going forward, so stay tuned.  My only hope is nobody gets hurt before this blows over.  Just mark December 23 on your calendars, this is when the Kings and Oilers will hook up again.  Watch your back Sean, because I see a target on it, and Craig MacTavish will have last change.

Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Kings are unanimous when it comes to the whole visor issue.  The NHLPA recently invited every player to take part in an online poll in which one either is for or against making the wearing of a visor mandatory.  What they didnít say however, is whether the comments they got were from the actual players, or from Avery posing as all of his team mates.  Regardless, the debate continues, and I for one will bet my right eye Torontoís Mats Sundin will be all for it when he fills out his survey.

As if 18 year old Sidney Crosby didnít have enough on his plate already, now he has to yet again contend with lost jerseys.  You may recall his jersey went missing from his luggage shortly after Team Canada beat Team Russia at the 2005 World Junior tournament.  The perpetrator, who eventually returned the jersey to its rightful owner, was later identified as an Air Canada employee and was subsequently fired.  Fast forward to this past week, and his game worn Pittsburgh Penguins jersey from his first NHL game went missing, only to be miraculously recovered in Pittsburgh by a US Airways employee at the foot of a stairway used to load luggage onto planes.  Apparently the jersey has since been returned and the incident under investigation.  Perhaps going forward Sid the Kid will want to consider bringing his uniform with him in a carry on bag.

In Minnesota right about now Iím sure Jacques Lemaire is making a mental note to himself Ė never ever put Alexandre Daigle in a shootout.  In case you missed it, Daigle missed on what has to go down as one of the top three worst penalty shots Iíve ever seen, or at the very least the worst penalty shot so far in this young season (and one of them actually happened during the first ever shootout, more to come).  On a lighter note, Daigle has 3 points in 4 games, all of them assists, and has a plus/minus rating of -1, his lowest since he played in Philadelphia after the trade from Ottawa.  If he keeps up this pace perhaps he may break even for once.

Speaking of Minnesota, anybody out there have Marc Chouinard in their hockey pool?

OK, now for another bad shootout attempt?  Jason Allison for Toronto on opening night tried to deke Dominik Hasek and ran out of ice.  Mistake #1.  Mistake #2?  Not actually getting a shot on goal.  Speaking of shootouts, has Eric Lindros not learned anything from the 1998 Nagano Olympics?  Hasek cannot, I repeat cannot be beat by a deke.  Iíll tell you what, Iíll bet the Leafs wish Owen Nolan was back in their lineup.  In the meantime, coach Bryan Murray and the Ottawa Senators could be seen laughing all the way back to the locker room, twice.

Hereís a pretty good case against the shootout if ever I saw one, even though I still like watching them.  As of this writing Vancouver and Edmonton have both played five games each, both with an identical number of wins and losses.  Both have won 3 and lost 2.  However, Edmonton beat Vancouver in a shootout during one of these games, which means because Vancouver tied after regulation they gain an extra point in the standings, even though they actually lost the game Ė in a shootout!  The NHL really needs to revisit this point system in the future, because at some point I can see this coming back to haunt more than a few teams on the outside looking in for a playoff position.  If you win, you win, if you donít, why should you be rewarded?  It seems a moot point to mention this, but just imagine if the division title was up for grabs and these two teams faced each other in the last game of the season and go to a shootout.  Now the only way the team winning the shootout wins the division is if both teams are tied in points going in, otherwise the team winning better hope they have more goals than the other team and/or theyíve got the edge in the season series between them.  Food for thought, isnít it?  Welcome to the new NHL. 

Wayne Gretzky, on having won his first ever NHL game as a coach:  ďScotty Bowmanís record is pretty safeĒ  Sure, one down, only 1244 more to go (not including playoffs).  You have to think if anybody can do it, Wayne would be the one.  Now if only he can do something about Brett Hull.

Can somebody please explain to me the significance of the NHL mandating white tape on the butt end of a goalie stick?  I just havenít quite figured that one out yet.  Iíve actually seen a goalie get called to their team bench by the referee to make this happen.  The only thing I can think of is it must be an instant replay thing.  Am I right?

Iíve said it before and Iíll say it again Ė the people on the marketing team over at Molson Breweries are geniuses.  During the lockout I talked previously about how they ran a TV ad with the caption ďhockey please come backĒ and a bunch of guys at various locations singing the Culture Club classic ďDo You Really Want To Hurt MeĒ.  With hockey now back, the same guys can be found in the same surroundings, singing the Irene Cara hit ďWhat A FeelingĒ.  Is it just me or is the fact they chose two songs from the same year a coincidence?  Both songs were massive hits way back in 1983 and take us back to an era in hockey the new NHL is trying to revisit.

Have I mentioned how great it is to have the game back?  I admit it, as much as I said I wouldnít miss the game, last year just wasnít the same.  Sure, there was minor league hockey, but for me it just wasnít the same.  It feels like some sanity has been restored to this often challenging world of ours.  Enjoy the season everyone, and keep checking in periodically for all the puck talk you can handle.

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