First Few Weeks of Hockey Have Been Downright Offensive

Greg Mole

The new rules were meant to increase scoring league, but few could have predicted what has happened over the first few weeks of the season. With referees cracking down on defensive holding and interference, games are featuring an unprecedented number of penalties. As a result, the power play has become more important than ever before.

In a Monday night game between the Rangers and Islanders, there were a combined 16 power plays and three special teams goals. This massive amount of man-advantage hockey is changing the way the game is played. The power play has always been important, and teams that excel at scoring with the extra attacker or penalty killing are often among the best squads in the league. Power plays can be giant momentum shifters and, even if teams do not score, they knock at least two minutes of time off the clock for their opponents.

But a big part of the power play’s appeal was that it only happened a few times during a game. With special teams play taking up more and more of the game, the man advantage has lost some of its excitement.

The preponderance of penalties also takes the game out of its element. One of the most appealing aspects of the NHL is the fast pace of its play. The entire reason behind placing more of an emphasis on calling defensive penalties was to open up the ice and allow the quicker, finesse players to showcase their talents. However, by calling penalties left and righ, the referees are slowing the game down, breaking it down into two-minute chunks of power play action and making it difficult for teams to develop any kind of rhythm.

Special teams play is the exact opposite of a flow-based game. The team with the man-advantage simply moves into its offensive zone and cycles the puck around while looking for any openings to shoot. Power plays can provide a flurry of offensive action, as goalies are peppered from a variety of different angles and have to contend with screens and redirections; however, they can also be very boring, with teams often squandering opportunities passing the puck back and forth, looking for a perfect shot.

The worst part is that the new “offense-oriented” NHL has not generated much more in the way of scoring. Despite featuring all those power plays, the Rangers-Islanders game ended in a 3-2 Rangers’ win. This is no anomaly – scoreboards across the league look pretty similar. And, with the preponderance of penalty-calling, power play conversion percentages are way down for a number of teams.

The simple fact is that a man advantage only increases scoring to a certain extent. Good teams can make up for the loss of a player on the ice by crashing around the goalie and making it difficult for its opponents to find a clear shot.

This problem should take care of itself in time. No team wants to provide its opponent with eight chances to go on the power play regardless of how successful it is in scoring on special teams. Defensemen will adjust and learn to play within the new guidelines, and then play will really be opened up.

Also, since the power play is currently such a dominant part of the game, teams will develop new strategies to improve their man-advantage conversion percentages and scoring will see a rise. Although the staccato feel of a game split into special teams play is unattractive, a rise in scoring will help achieve the NHL’s goal of offering fans more action.

Time will tell whether the new emphasis on defensive penalties adds to the appeal of the game. More scoring chances also gives goalies a chance to highlight their prowess between the pipes and should lead to more acrobatic saves. If everything works out as the league intends, play should improve on a number of different levels. Right now though, the NHL appears mired in the doldrums of five-on-four hockey.