Goals, goals, goals, whether the NHL likes them or not

Of course it’s hard to know how long it will last. This is, after all, the NHL, the league that has for too long glorified goalies, goons and grinders and has for decades made supremely skilled athletes run through a gauntlet of abuse to showcase their talent.

But, for now, that appears to have changed to some degree. Once more, coming out of a dark period for the NHL, the sheer brilliance of this game is coming to the rescue.

Back in 2005, after an entire season had been lost to an owners lockout, a series of new rules emerged when the NHL came back and a more open, offensive product resulted. Gradually, as always happens with Gary Bettman’s administration, the folks in charge of the game took their eye off the road, and slowly the game was steered back into a game in which defense and goaltending dominated.

Now, coming out of two very difficult seasons truncated by COVID that cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue, the NHL produced its highest scoring season this century. Not since the 1995-96 season were goals scored at the rate they were this year, a combined 6.25 goals per game.

Surprisingly, in the first week of the Stanley Cup playoffs, scoring has continued to go up.

In the first 27 games over seven nights, the 16 playoff clubs combined for 179 goals, including another 24 in the first three games Sunday. That’s 6.62 goals per game, a remarkable total given the playoffs have traditionally produced a lower-scoring brand of hockey.

Combined with a consistently bone-crunching style of hockey in which the hits come at a dizzying pace in most games, the entertainment value has been extremely high.

Just do not expect the NHL to be happy about it.

Why? Well, the NHL believes in parity before greatness, and Bettman & Co. like to see all the clubs packed as closely as possible. To that end, in playoff season after playoff season, we’ve heard the league boast about the large number of playoff games decided either by one goal or in overtime. To the NHL powers-that-be, the total number of goals matters less than keeping games close.

Which is why they won’t be happy. In the first 27 games of the playoffs, 18 games were decided by three goals or more. Five games were decided by five goals or more. There have been more blowouts.

By comparison, only four games were decided by one goal, and just two of those games were decided in overtime.

That’s just not the product the NHL has been telling hockey fans they should want.

Well, too bad, because goals and hits make for excitement, and if the Colorado Avalanche can score 16 times in their first three games and the Nashville Predators can barely slow them down, we’re supposed to believe this isn’t good for the game?

So why is it happening? And why has it shut up people like me who once clamored for larger nets to break the defensive logjam that had gummed up the works for the fastest sport in the world?

  • Talent. Players like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are leading the way for a new generation of players who can do things on the ice that players simply could not do even a decade ago. Hockey’s YouTube generation sees what’s being done by players across the world and tries to mimic those skills.

The league isn’t populated by players trying to get a Gordie Howe hat trick – goal, assist, fight – every night. Of the top 50 scorers in the regular season, none had 100 minutes in penalties.

Trevor Zegras and others who try to score using the “lacrosse move” are what gets young hockey players excited these days.

  • Training. Once upon a time NHLers pumped weights and skated in the off-season. As Sportsnet hockey analyst Jeff Marek was one of the first to highlight several years ago, modern-day players now use the off-season to go to school on different ways to shoot the puck and use modern technology to their advantage.

“We were always told, ‘You can not teach touch,’ and you either had it or you did not and we all believed it,” Marek says. “Until someone finally asked, ‘Is that true?’ And it turns out it is not. Shooting (and) scoring are like any other skill, and so can be taught. ”

  • Power plays. As Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau pointed out, more teams have better power plays. Five years ago, 11 teams had power plays that clicked at 20 per cent or better. This year, 19 teams were at that level. And with games in the first week of the playoffs producing a combined 8.2 power plays per game, those extra-strength units are getting a chance to shine in the post-season.

To look at a power play from the 1980s and compare it to a power play in today’s NHL is to understand how much tactics and players have changed. Watch the Maple Leafs on the power play and you see five players changing positions on the ice and running set plays designed to highlight the talent of their best players. Watch the “slingshot” strategy used by every team to try and enter the penalty killing killing zone.

  • Empty-net goals. In the first 24 games of the playoffs there were 13 empty-net goals. Teams are pulling their goalies earlier and earlier. Coaches would rather take a chance of losing by two or even three goals, rather than waiting conservatively until the last moment to remove their goalie for an extra attacker. After all, a loss is a loss, whether it’s 4-3 or 6-3.

There are undoubtedly other reasons for all the goals. The good news is that there’s no sign of this wave of NHL offence slowing down. The goalies may not like it, but the rest of us should.

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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