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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
During the past six NHL seasons, 100-point scorers had gone the way of the dinosaurs – extinct and relegated to history books.

However, that’s all changed this year.

Twelve players are on pace to eclipse the century mark through the season’s first third.

You see, the “old” NHL of clutching, grabbing and thuggery died during the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. In its place, the “new” NHL of skating, speed and skill is in full swing.

“It took a while, but I think it’s a nice change for everybody. Fans want to see better hockey and the talent to go out and play the way they can,” Penguins center Mario Lemieux said. “There’s a lot more open ice and you can make plays now, where before it was pretty difficult to get over the blue line at times. There’s a lot more flow and it’s reflected in a lot more scoring.”

Lemieux isn’t alone. Many enjoy the NHL’s rules changes which promote offense and skill instead of frustration and bogged-down defense.

“It’s definitely for the better; it’s what the fans want and it’s what the players want,” said Penguins radio color commentator Phil Bourque, who played in the NHL for more than a decade. “As much as I am a former player and now an announcer, I am still a hockey fan and I watch games at home. I love to see goals scored just like everybody else. It’s great to see the skilled guys free to show their best skill set and what they are made of.”

Pittsburgh radio play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald has covered the Penguins for more than 20 seasons. He has witnessed NHL play deteriorate over the past two decades, especially in the last 10 years.

“I think anybody who is involved with hockey would like it now. What we had before was pretty boring. It wasn’t hockey anymore. It was some other mutation of hockey,” he said. “You go back to the 1970s and Freddy Shero of the Philadelphia Flyers was really the first guy to teach interference and teach guys to hold guys up and stuff like that on the fore-check. That was something that was part of the game, but it was more of a subtle thing.

“Then, it crept into the game – and crept into the game to the point where it was almost standard practice where it was acceptable to hook guys anytime you wanted or lock on to guys with your stick. The game just degenerated into this tug of war out there,” he continued. “I think now that they’ve kind of taken the shackles off, it’s back to looking like hockey again. That’s really what everybody wants: a test of skating and positioning, smarts and anticipation – a lot of different factors enter into it now without the use of the stick to be able to compensate for the fact that you’re out of position. The game is way more fun to watch from that standpoint. Guys have room to skate out there and you’re seeing guys buzz around.”

The NHL became so mired in clutching, grabbing and defensive trapping that the last scoring champion (Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis) didn’t even crack 100 points. He finished with 94.

Topping 100 points was common for elite players just 10 years ago. In the 1995-96 season, 12 different players topped the century mark – paced by Lemieux’s 161. Since that season, it has only been accomplished 11 – yes, 11 – total times: Lemieux (122) and Teemu Selanne (109) in 1997; Jaromir Jagr (102) in 1998; Jagr (127), Selanne (107) and Paul Kariya (101) in 1999; Jagr (121) and Joe Sakic (118) in 2001; Peter Forsberg (106), Markus Naslund (104) and Joe Thornton (101) in 2003. There were no 100-point scorers in 2000 (Jagr led the league with 96), 2002 (Jarome Iginla, 96) and 2004 (St. Louis, 94).

Prior to the strike-shortened 1994-95 season, the last NHL scoring leader to tally less than 100 points came in 1968 when Stan Mikita registered 87 points.

However, this season’s scoring champ is certainly looking like he will soar past the 100-point mark. In order to do that in an 82-game season, a player must average 1.22 points per game. Currently, 12 players are above that pace. Pittsburgh’s top two scorers – Ziggy Palffy and rookie Sidney Crosby – project to fall shy of 100 points. Crosby has 29 points in 27 games, while Palffy has 28 points through Pittsburgh’s first 26 games, which equates to around 88 points over 82 games.

“Now, the game is like it was in the 1990s because there is a lot more goal scoring. Even in the mid-90s, there was a lot more stick work and a lot more grabbing let go,” Bourque said. “In the last 10 years the game is evolved, I think the players have gotten so much better. From their off-ice training to everything else – it just seems like they are bigger and stronger. The combination of players getting better and the game being wide-open, I don’t think it’s that big of a surprise you’re going to see 50-goal scorers and 100-point scorers.”

There have only been two 50-goal seasons since 2001-02 and none last season. Bourque believes that will change this year.

“Now, it’s nothing to have eight to 10 power plays a game. Obviously, not only are you going to get 100-point guys because they will pick up assists, too, but you’re more likely to have guys getting 50 goals with all the power-play chances,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time we had a few 50-goal scorers. Before, if you scored 50 goals, it didn’t mean you were going to be the top goal-scorer. Now, the last two, three, even four years, if you had 50 goals, you were pretty much guaranteed to be the top goal-getter.”

Defensemen are getting into the scoring act as well. Toronto’s Bryan McCabe is on pace to become only the sixth defenseman in NHL history to reach 100 points in a season. Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey, Denis Potvin, Al MacInnis and Brian Leetch are the others. Leetch was the last to do it as he racked up 102 points in 1991-92. McCabe has 35 points through his first 27 games. That puts him on pace for 106 points.

“It’s just an indication how offense has returned to the league. That’s what the [NHL] was trying to accomplish,” Steigerwald said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the additional power plays because there’s a lot of power-play goals being scored. In general, I think that’s what the league was trying to accomplish was to get the skill players the opportunity to put some points on the board again. I think it’s an indication that the game is more fun to watch. More goals are being scored and more guys are benefiting from the environment.”

Nine other defensemen have at least 20 points so far this season.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘Who are these guys?’ but these are guys who are really good offensive defensemen who maybe got a little smothered in the former system and now are able to flourish and show what they’re made of,” said Bourque, who played defense during his career. “Defensemen, when they have a lot of points, a lot of those come off the power play. I think for McCabe and the others, that’s usually where they are getting most of their points.

“McCabe and [Tampa Bay’s Dan] Boyle, they already have 10 goals after 25 games, so who is to say they can’t have 25 or 30 goals after 82 games? That was unheard of the last couple years. There’s no reason why they can’t get 20 or 25 goals. For a defenseman, that’s incredible.”

All the offensive opportunities have made goaltenders busier this season.

“You’re seeing a lot of shots on goal, getting a lot of flow back and forth and scoring chances, which is what people want. I don’t have a problem with that. I always felt that the goaltenders, if they are so good, let them make saves,” Steigerwald said. “We’re seeing that now with goalies making 35, 36 saves a night. Some of them are getting hurt, but it looks a lot more like the hockey I remember watching in the 1990s. I don’t think it’s exactly the same, but I think it’s more like that than what we had before the lockout.”

Goaltenders are making more highlight-reel stops, too, which make games more entertaining.

“It’s exciting, too, because the goalies are having to get better – you’re seeing some unbelievable saves by goaltenders just because there’s more quality scoring chances,” Bourque said.

Instead of the players’ point production tailing off at the end of the season, Bourque expects it to increase. The NHL goes on hiatus for two and a half weeks in late February so its players may compete at the Winter Olympics. Once the season resumes in March, there is only a month and a half regular-season stretch run.

“They are going be a little more recharged. That’s two and a half weeks off. Usually it’s a grind towards the end,” he said. “Some guys are going to play for their country, but still it’s not going to be the grind of the NHL. They will be overseas playing five or six games or whatever with a lot of rest between. So, you’re going to see the top guys get their batteries recharged and come out flying for the last 30 some games. I think there will be a big spark. I can foresee easily four or five guys getting 50 goals and at least 100 points.”

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