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More offense bring more excitement to the game

by Larry Wigge
Is this the year? That was the question being asked last year about any number of offensive records in the National Hockey League and whether they could be broken.

The question more literally was, Is this the year there's more scoring, more scoring chances, more odd-man breaks, more flow through the neutral zone and more excitement in the game? The answer is yes, yes, yes, yes and an astounding yes.

Since the NHL intensified the enforcement of the obstruction rules after the lockout and removed the red line for two-line pass infractions, we've been waiting for a dramatic breakout offensive season.

Numbers show that the total of 5.14 goals per game in the 2003-04 season, the last season before the lockout, increased to 5.61 after 683 games played last season -- and that total is up again to 5.81 at the same point this season. More importantly, power-play goals per game have gone from 1.40 pre-lockout to 1.56 last season and 1.60 this season.

"You can't stand around and be successful in this game," said Washington's Alex Ovechkin, who led the NHL with 31 goals at the All-Star break. "You have to move around to find the soft spots in the defense."

Added Boston center Marc Savard, "There's much more creativity in making plays, more tic-tac-toe passing plays than before the lockout."

More goals. More chances. More flow. More odd-man breaks.

"I'll swear that even in the preseason games there was more competitiveness and creative plays -- and I never thought I'd ever say that about preseason games that often are about as exciting as sitting at a fishing hole for about three hours," St. Louis Blues President
John Davidson said. "Seriously, I don't think the game has ever been better. We've made changes to open up a game of traps and obstruction that had almost taken most of the small, skilled players out of the picture."

Like last season's Calder Trophy winner Patrick Kane, who stands a mere 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds.

"In the NBA they wondered what would happen after Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson left," said San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson. "We were no different in the NHL after the Bobby Orrs, Guy Lafleurs, Wayne Gretzkys and Mario Lemieuxs. We wondered where the next great young stars would come from. I played against the Lafleurs, Bossys, Trottiers, Gretzkys, Lemieuxs and I've scouted the (Sidney) Crosbys, (Evgeni) Malkins, (Alex) Ovechkins, (Joe) Thorntons, (Henrik) Zetterbergs and (Pavel) Datsyuks and I get excited just thinking about the skill all of those players have brought and continue to bring to our game.

"Every night it's someone else. Crosby. Ovechkin. Datsyuk. Jarome Iginla. Brenden Morrow. It seems like there's another great name, another great play we're talking about."

The tweaks that have been made in the game since the lockout may not have been welcomed with overwhelming acceptance, but there's a better-than-even chance you are going to witness one of those pull-you-out-of-your-seat plays any given night in today's game.

And the best of this season's tweaks is the new rule that places an ensuing faceoff in the penalized team's zone.

"It's unbelievable what a difference it is," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. "I never would have believed it. You're in the driver's seat."

In the driver's seat if you're like Babcock, who can use Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Marian Hossa and Nicklas Lidstrom with the man advantage -- and his team has a great faceoff percentage. Each faceoff win following a penalty can translate into an extra 20-30 seconds of offensive-zone time for each power play.

If that success rate continues, teams will score about 100 more power-play goals this season.

At the All-Star break there were five players with at least 25 goals -- Ovechkin, Jeff Carter, Thomas Vanek, Zach Parise and Patrick Marleau. Malkin led a group of 13 players with more than 50 points. Last season, we had three players finish with 50 or more goals and just two reach the 100-point mark. Look for those numbers to increase as well.

Things that make you go hmm! -- Alex Ovechkin's goals in Washington's 2-1 overtime triumph against the New York Islanders on Jan. 19 raised the Capitals' record to 29-1-1 in the last 31 games that Ovechkin had scored a goal. ... Tim Connolly is one of the more talented players in the League, but just can't stay healthy. Since signing a three-year contract prior to the start of the 2006-07 season, he's played just 63 of 171 games. But he has 51 points in those 63 games. ... Going into Florida's Jan. 19 home tilt against Buffalo, the Panthers had the most home games remaining of any playoff-contending team. More importantly, in spite of the 3-2 shootout loss to the Sabres, the Panthers were the only team in the NHL to have at least one point in each game in 2009 -- a streak that went to eight straight. ... Brendan Shanahan scored a goal in his first game this season to help the New Jersey Devils post a 3-1 win in Nashville on Jan. 19, thereby putting his name into the NHL record book for the longest time between goals for one franchise. Shanahan's last goal in a Devils jersey came March 31, 1991, against the Islanders. That span of 17 years, 294 days surpassed the previous NHL record of 17 years, 88 days held by Randy Cunneyworth, whose goal for the Sabres on Feb. 11, 1999 was his first in a Buffalo uniform since Nov. 15, 1981. ... The Red Wings lost, 6-3, to the Coyotes in Phoenix on Jan. 20, after suffering a 6-5 loss at San Jose on three days earlier. It's the first time the Wings had allowed six or more goals in consecutive games since Oct. 6-7, 1990, when they lost 6-4 at Washington and 7-2 at Philadelphia. ... Buffalo's Ales Kotalik now has a League-high four shootout-deciding goals this season. His 10 career shootout-deciding goals leads the League. ... All nine of Marek Zidlicky's goals this season have come on the power play. The last two players to start a season by scoring their first 9 goals on the power play were Nashville's Andy Delmore in 2002-03 and Montreal's Yvan Cournoyer in 1966-67. Both Delmore and Cournoyer scored their first 11 goals of the season on the power. ... Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury went 2-0 with his new catching glove. It was the first time the Penguins won consecutive games since Nov. 15, when they just finished winning five straight.

Hem-ospheric -- Ales Hemsky always has had all-world moves, but a concussion and a 10-game absence from the Edmonton Oilers' lineup did nothing but make him hungrier to succeed when he returned to action. The Oilers' point-per-game star got 2 goals in his first game back, against Phoenix on Jan. 18, and had 2 goals and 2 assists in a 4-3 victory against Columbus two nights later.

"He misses 10 games and comes back and totally dominates the game," said defenseman Sheldon Souray.

Added Sam Gagner, "Every time he had the puck it seemed like a game of keep-away."

Not waivering -- Last week I was writing about how the Atlanta Thrashers needed to do something more than just name Ilya Kovalchuk captain -- like put Todd White, Bryan Little or Slava Kozlov on a line with Kovalchuk.

Rich Peverley, who showed glimpses of play-making magic in his short stays in Nashville over the last three seasons and who three times put up more than 50 points in the minors, was claimed off waivers by Atlanta and placed on a line with Kovalchuk.

In his second game he scored the game-winning goal and 2 assists in a win against Toronto on Jan. 16. One night later, he had 3 assists in a win against Nashville, and he followed that with another assist against Philadelphia on Jan. 21. Kovalchuk had 4 goals and 2 assists in those three games.

A real ironman -- Andrew Brunette has never put on a stopwatch to judge his skating speed, but no one has ever questioned his savvy, strength on the puck or his determination to play. On Jan. 19, one game after he suffered a severe knee injury, the old pro never missed a shift and assisted on 2 goals, including the game-winner by Marek Zidlicky, in a 4-1 victory at Chicago. The performance enabled Brunette to extend his consecutive-game streak, which dates back to Dec. 31, 2001, to 498, the longest active ironman streak in the NHL. ... Tampa Bay won five times in seven games going into the All-Star break. Despite Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, who had combined for 14 goals and 22 assists in their previous 12 games, being blanked against Buffalo on Jan. 21, the Lightning won anyway, 5-3. ... Good sign? Scott Gomez's first power-play goal of the season helped the Rangers to a 4-2 victory against Anaheim on Jan. 20. ... Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has become a master at winning the close ones. Nine of his 13 wins since Nov. 15 have been by a one-goal margin, including six shootout victories and one win in overtime. ... Trickle-down energy? With rookie goalie Brian Elliott winning three of his last four games and taking an overtime loss in the other, a confidence seems to be setting in among some of the players in front of Elliott. Like Dany Heatley, who had back-to-back two-goal games just before the All-Star break and 5 goals in four games after eight straight games without a goal. ... New Jersey's David Clarkson may be thought of just for his fighting prowess and hard-working checking ability. But Patrik Elias said he's never played with someone who wants to know all the secrets to be better offensively and defensively. Clarkson has points in his last five games, including 3 goals, and has equaled last season's career-high of 10 goals. ... Activating the defense? That's one of the keys to Florida's recent upsurge, and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester's 10 goals are a big part of that. Bouwmeester's 37 goals over the last three seasons ties him with Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber for third among NHL defensemen over that span, behind Sheldon Souray (41) and Dion Phaneuf (38).

200 and counting -- Marc Savard recently reached the 200-game mark in his Boston career with 227 points (52-175).

In the last 30 years, the only players to score more points in their first 200 games for the Bruins are Adam Oates (300) and Barry Pederson (253).

Super Bowl QB -- When you look at Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf, you see a big power forward going to the net, but there's much more to his resume. Getzlaf leads all NHL players with 57 power-play assists over the last two seasons. Second is Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom with 44, followed by Philadelphia's Kimmo Timonen with 34. ... Coaches say the secret to finding success is finding pairs of players who click together, because it's easier than finding three-man units. Calgary's Mike Keenan found a great pair earlier this season when he put Mike Cammalleri on a line with Jarome Iginla. While Iginla may not reach 50 goals this season, he's poised to crack his previous high of 55 assists. Cammalleri's 8 goals in the last six games put him on pace to surpass his previous high of 34, set in the 2006-07 season. And when one line is rolling, a second-line player like Daymond Langkow can often flourish. Langkow has nine multiple-point games this season. ... Coming into the All-Star break, Anaheim has the goalie with the best goals-against average for the month of January. It's not All-Star Jean-Sebastien Giguere, rather its Jonas Hiller, with a 1.56 GAA in seven January games. ... Those top-flight Dallas centers are going to be the key to getting the Stars back in the playoff race. Mike Ribeiro took his turn in leading the way with his first career hat trick (he had 11 multi-goal games entering this season) in a 4-1 triumph against Florida. ... MVP in Chicago? You could get lots of candidates, but consider the Blackhawks lost three of four games without defenseman Duncan Keith, who was averaging a team-leading 25:36 of ice time per game heading into the All-Star break. Keith, who missed the last four games before the break with a concussion, had played in 286 of 287 games in his NHL career, with a consecutive streak of 273 games. ... Sami Salo's absence from the Vancouver lineup might have been just as important as the loss of All-Star goalie Roberto Luongo if you look at the stats. In the 15 games Salo missed with a rib fracture, the Canucks were 4-9-2. Worse yet, the team's power play was powerless, going 8-for-61. ... The Kings are 2-0-1 since highly regarded defenseman Jack Johnson returned to the lineup. ... Sixteen goals by St. Louis' David Backes and no two-goal games. That's the most goals this season among players who have not had a multi-goal game. Teammate Patrik Berglund is tied for second with Chicago's Martin Havlat with 14 one-goal games this season. ... Alexander Frolov's best quality is that never-give-up, go-to-the-net ability. That trait helped him reach the 20-goal mark for the fifth straight season, making him the first Kings player to score 20 or more goals in five consecutive seasons since Luc Robitaille did it in eight straight seasons (1986-87 through 1993-94). Those were Robitaille's first eight NHL seasons, and he scored at least 44 goals in each. ... The Colorado Avalanche reacted with cautious optimism at the news that Peter Forsberg and his oft-injured right foot are considering a return to the NHL this season. Forsberg had a goal and 13 assists in nine regular-season games and a goal and 4 assists in seven playoff games for the Avs last season. Said coach Tony Granato, "What I remember when he came back last year is he had an impact on us and how we played and how much success we had at the end of the year."
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