Saturday, October 08, 2005

A Return To The Ice
By Ben Valentine

Tonight I got my first look at the new NHL, watching the Rangers take on the Devils over at my friend Mike’s place. The Blueshirts played hard and lost in OT, 3-2, done in by the stellar play of Martin Brodeur. I certainly cared about the game’s result, but I was just pleased to see world’s fastest game for the first time since June of 2004. I also took it in carefully, knowing without cable TV, it will be may well be my last look at it in sometime.

And it was good to have hockey back. I missed the passes, the great saves and the fast play. But all in all, despite what people may say to the contrary, in my opinion the “new” NHL plays a lot like the old NHL did.

There were still plenty of scrums in front of the net. Of the five goals scored in the three periods and OT, only one was the result of a nice play. The others came on miscues, rebounds or odd bounces. Again, that’s a lot like the old NHL. To be fair, there were actually two penalties called in the final five minutes of the game. That’s something that didn’t happen frequently before. Time will tell if that remains a constant. But then again, that’s the way it always has been with officiating in the NHL. It changes at the start of the year and slowly reverts to form.

I personally don’t have much problem with that. I enjoyed the NHL before, and I’ll enjoy it now, whenever I manage to catch a game. I just wonder if people will actually watch the new product once the whole “the NHL is back” thing wears off. Then again, if these new people watching are convinced the game is different, even if it really isn’t, then they might stick around. Sometimes I wonder if a large part of these rule changes is to just change the perception of the league. When people believed it was button down, trap oriented sport they complained even when the games were good.

As I was discussing with Mike, the problem isn’t the rules. It’s the regular season itself. In an 82 game season, there will not be the same intense play every night. I mean doesn’t anyone wonder why the obstruction filled NHL would suddenly open up and become more exciting in the postseason? It isn’t because penalties were called; we all know penalties in the playoffs are NEVER called. It’s because the teams are better and the players want it more.

There are finer rule changes such as not being able to pull defensive pairings off the ice after icing the puck. That is a welcome change that delivers some much needed extra teeth to the icing rule. The limit on goalies handling the puck didn’t seem to have much of an effect in this game. But then maybe it was because Brodeur is so good at it anyway, the rules won’t affect him. The restrictions on goalie pads also didn’t seem to matter much. Again, that has to do with Brodeur being in net. Meanwhile the Rangers goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, was making his first NHL start, making it impossible to compare him to any performance prior.

Overall, the game itself was still fun to watch. It was humorous how I could barely name anyone on the Rangers. They seem to have some young players with upside. As I mentioned in my previous post, they may not be as bad as I expected. Meanwhile, the Devils may not use the exact same neutral zone trap they did before, but whatever they play is just as ugly. Oh and no matter what, Brodeur is still one of the all time greats. Better than Patrick Roy was.

But aside from that, I don’t know what to expect. I’m not sure if anyone does. With all the player movement, the salary cap and the rule changes, the NHL is a giant question mark. That alone will generate interest.

I don’t care about that however. Hockey’s back, so I’m happy.

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