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Bergen Record On The Refs Crackdown


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Refs hold the key to opening the ice

http://www.bergenrecord.com/page.php?level...32&page=5231587

Tuesday, October 08, 2002

By TOM GULITTI

Staff Writer

At times during the NHL preseason, it appeared nothing had changed.

In an exhibition game two weeks ago at Madison Square Garden, Devils left wing Patrik Elias skated over the blue line to chase after a puck that had been dumped deep into the offensive zone, but was held up along the boards by Rangers defenseman Vladimir Malakhov. Remembering what he had been told about the league's promise to crack down on obstruction, Elias tried to keep moving his legs to make it clear that he had not given up on the play and was being slowed by Malakhov.

To Elias' dismay, no penalty was called.

"They're not going to call everything," he said.

Although there have been similar occurrences throughout the preseason, they have been less frequent than in the past, providing hope that, when the regular season gets underway Wednesday, this time the promise will be fulfilled.

The objective is simple. By cutting back on the obstruction, particularly against players entering the offensive zone, there will be more open space for them to use their skills and speed. Forecheckers will be able to put more pressure on defensemen retrieving the puck, giving them less time to get rid of it or carry it out of danger. That should create more turnovers and more scoring chances in transition and, in the end, more goals.

Scoring dropped more than a quarter of a goal per game last season - 5.51 to 5.24. No player scored more than 100 points last season and Jarome Iginla was the only one to hit the 50-goal mark with 52. The previous season Jaromir Jagr led the league with 121 points and three players surpassed 50 goals.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman maintains that the game was not in "crisis," but the league wanted stricter enforcement of the already existing obstruction rules "to move the dial a notch or two and make it better."

"The positive response has evidenced itself in a number of ways," Bettman said. "Teams are making quicker transitions from defense to offense. Teams are attacking the offensive blue lines with more speed. They are pressuring the puck more on the forecheck and forwards are going to the net more. These are among the results we expected when we began this process of adopting a new and tighter standard about a year ago."

If enforced, the new standard should benefit teams with smaller, faster players such as Ottawa, Montreal, Phoenix, Anaheim, and the Devils. Size and strength will still have its advantages, especially in the battles in the corners, but the time when a bigger, slower defenseman could halt a smaller, faster attacker (Anaheim's Paul Kariya or Montreal's Saku Koivu) by simply grabbing him could be on its way out.

"Smaller guys with a lot of skill and speed are really going to have a chance to play," said TSN television analyst Pierre McGuire, the former head coach of the Hartford Whalers and a Bergen Catholic alumnus. "I think there's a reason why the Montreal Canadiens went 7-2 in the preseason. The small players and skilled players have really thrived and I really believe the league is going to stick with this."

McGuire is among many in the league who believe the NHL intends to see this mandate through. The league declared similar wars against obstruction twice in the 1990s. On both occasions, however, the crackdown abated after a month or so and the clutching and grabbing resumed, slowing players to a standstill as they tried to fight their way through to the puck and to the front of the net.

This time, league officials say, there will be no letup.

"We really, really attacked the problem and we tried to identify the problem," said Colin Campbell, NHL executive vice president and director of hockey operations. "We found out that we were allowing more interference on the forecheck and it was a penalty that really wasn't - didn't want to be - called [by referees] in the dying stages of a tight game, in the late stages of the season when playoff positions were up for grab or obviously in the playoffs. And it's something that we have really stressed now that it's got to be called."

League officials held a meeting in Toronto before the opening of training camps to emphasize this point to the coaches and general managers of all the teams. Referees also have met with the players and showed them a video that explains the new standard.

So far, the enforcement has worked, though a few incidents like Elias' have slipped through the cracks.

"There's been a difference, no question, and I like that," Elias said. "The guys got so much bigger and so much stronger and the holding and grabbing was a big part of the game and slowed the game down and some nights weren't pretty to look at."

Another factor that should speed up the pace of the game is the league's new hurry-up faceoff rule, which is a variation of the Olympic faceoff rule. Previously, there was no time limit on faceoffs.

The visiting team has five seconds during each play stoppage to change its players. The home team then gets eight seconds to make a change, followed by another five seconds before the puck is dropped for both sides to get set.

The impact has been immediate. In the preseason, games were an average of 16 minutes faster than last season - 2:33 to 2:17.

There's also been a positive side effect.

"We have already noticed that the pace demanded by the changes flows right over into the actual play of the game," Campbell said. "So I think not only have we shortened the time it takes to play games, we have actually quickened up the pace of the game because of the hurry-up nature of teams getting on and off the ice."

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