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by Staff Writer / Buffalo Sabres
Lindy Ruff
[Editor's Note: Head Coach Lindy Ruff spoke with the media today following practice at HSBC Arena. In the interview he discussed tthe status of player injuries as well as the trends that have taken over the NHL With a decrease in scoring and an increase in defensive play, the league appears to be falling into familiar habits.]

Q: There was a lot more teaching than skating out there today in practice.

Lindy Ruff: I think it’s an opportunity in between games, in between a pretty busy schedule, to go over some stuff. There are some areas we have really improved in the last couple games and there are some areas we want to continue to improve in. The tendency with playing is you work on the areas that are immediately in danger and you move on.

Q: There were eight defenseman on the ice. Who will be healthy for tomorrow’s game?

LR: We are hopeful to get an update tomorrow and get somebody back. But right now we’ve got Nolan [Pratt] that is still finding his way back from a groin injury, and obviously, Jaro [Spacek] is day-to-day with at shoulder [injury].

Q: Yesterday you mentioned Thomas Vanek is pressing. How do you go about helping him?

LR: Just working on areas that I think will help him. He’s fighting a mental battle. From looking for stuff that sometimes is too special, sometimes taking the easy play that’s there, shortening up some stuff in his game, which I think will lead to more success. He’s in a whole new situation. That line is in a whole new situation. They’ve got a tough challenge. They are playing against good lines now and they are pulling assignments against other teams’ top lines. It isn’t as easy as last year. We are trying to balance that and the recognition that scoring in the league has gone down and defensive play seems to be up, which makes everything tougher.

Q: Do you think it will take something like a fluky goal to open things up for Vanek?

LR: I think you still look at [last night], we don’t score the first goal [against Boston] if Thomas isn’t standing on top of the goaltender, which is a spot where he has scored a lot of goals from. He’s had some tips that haven’t gone in, but you’ve got to give him a lot of credit for, again, being right there. If he’s not there, I don’t think Ales’ shot goes in. That’s basically his home. Outside of that is where I am encouraging quicker decisions and quicker plays.

Q: You mentioned the increased defensive play, what happened to the ‘new NHL’?

LR: I think coaches are coaches. Every team has made their adjustments. I think coaches always look around at better teams and how did they get to where they were and why they are good defensively and you are seeing a lot of the same now. You are seeing a lot of people in the neutral zone. You are seeing in some cases teams that play a little bit of a European style with a 1-4, which takes a lot of the transition game out of most teams.

You can see a lot of teams that you think should be scoring, aren’t scoring. There are teams that I wouldn’t think would score a lot that are scoring some goals, but there are a lot of good teams having a tough time putting consistent numbers up. The numbers are down. That speaks for itself. Goal scoring is around five right now, which is down again from last year. If you’re going to blame it anywhere you can blame it on coaches and goaltending [which] is very good in this league.

Q: When you dumped the puck in, the Bruins would hit you immediately. I thought that was what referees were supposed to get out of the game as far as interference; The person carrying the puck would dump it in and be allowed chase it. That didn’t seem to be the case last night.

LR: I think they deemed some of them within that proximity, within that stick length that you can still play him. He was open game to play. The message for us was you’ve got to dump that sooner.

Q: Do you think it’s particularly tough for your group of players to adjust to where it seems the league has been going. They have had so much success the last two years as a wheeling and dealing, high-scoring team. It seems like the league is changing back to what it was before that success was here.

LR: I think all indications are pointing toward that. Look around the league at the good goal scorers in the league. A lot of good goal scorers have two, three, four goals. A lot of good players aren’t ripping it up. I think the tendency seems to be going toward that again. A: The discipline in the game is a lot better. You don’t see as many sticks on people. You almost have to look hard to get a stick on somebody.

On rare occasions you’ll have those nights where you will see five or six [penalties]. I think you’ve seen where our discipline has gone, from where it was very poor for a couple games to when we had a game where we didn’t take a penalty. We’ve had a couple games where it’s only been two penalties and that’s been eliminating the free hand and keeping your stick off people. Less power plays [means] less special teams [and] less scoring opportunities.

Q: Do you feel like it kind of feeds itself too? Where if there are five teams that are good at the trap, then when they come in you have to be worried about defensively not giving up any chances because they are going to go into a shell once they get the lead. Then it becomes 10 teams, then maybe 15 teams start to do it. It kind of feels like a virus taking over the league. Last night’s game was a perfect example. It didn’t feel like the same sport.

LR: No it didn’t at all. Part of it is exactly what you said. Teams look around and what are they doing that is making them effective. Some of the teams that had poor years that wanted to improve, a lot of the times you can’t do it through scoring. You have to do it through better defensive play, stronger goaltending.

Better defensive play leads, a lot of times, to you [getting] by on average goaltending if you give up half as many chances as you did the previous year. Teams that struggle or have struggled look around at preventing chances. It can be the trap, it can be more of a European flair with the 1-4. There are a good number of teams now that are basically playing a lock where you hit the line and there are three guys lined up. It is all defensive schemes that are loud and effective and make it frustrating. It takes a little bit of that transition game right out of hockey again.

Q: Is it possible to have zone defenses in hockey? Is that enforceable?

LR: It would be tough to enforce. It has been something we have talked about. Zone defense right now, I would put it under the label of killing the game. It is pretty well under the top of the circles, three forwards versus five defenders. When you are good at it, and most teams are now, that zone wasn’t as good before. It’s really good now. It is something that is really common. Ask all the top forwards. That is why they are struggling. They can’t just beat one guy. If they beat one guy they should have another guy on him and even if they beat that second guy, the third guy should be there.

Q: Is there a solution we should give to all the coaches?

LR: I’ve actually toyed with the idea that four-on-four would almost get rid of that. Players don’t want to hear that, that’s less players. It’s tough... Look at the overtime goal. It probably doesn’t happen [in regulation] but it did happen because you end up man-on-man. You end up with one guy in the corner, one guy on the wall, and one guy in the slot and one more guy. You went from zone to man-on-man. And man-on-man is a lot tougher [of a] situation.

Q: Defensively, are you going to the zone defense too?

LR: We have always been zone. We have been a little inconsistent this year, but we have always been zone defense. I use the penalty killing analogy. You play zone when you are penalty killing and you don’t give up a lot of chances, why would you change when it’s five-on-five. You’ve got an extra man, it should be even tougher. That’s common. You would be hard-pressed to find me a team that doesn’t play zone. It’s just how tight it is. Some teams it’s unbelievably tight and some teams it’s just tight.

Q: Did you enter the season assuming this trend would take over and scoring would be down?

LR: I think you always assume. History says that it always starts to go down. History says that it was going down last year and it’s going down again.
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