By Steve Silverman
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It was a game that you just didn’t expect to see.
Even though the Pittsburgh Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champions and loaded with big-time talent, including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, you didn’t anticipate them scoring eight goals Monday.
Even though the Washington Capitals won the President’s Trophy a year ago and were riding a nine-game winning streak, you didn’t expect Alex Ovechkin & Co. to score seven goals.
But there you had it. The Penguins and the Capitals have a sharp rivalry led by their forever-linked superstars, and it seems like Crosby has won all the most meaningful battles with Ovechkin.
But a 1980s style shootout at the O.K. Corral was not the expected result. It was, however, very welcome in what seems like the goal-starved NHL, and perhaps it can be a watershed moment in a league that has not seen more than three goals per game scored since the 1995-96 season.
Is there any proof that the kind of game that was fairly regular when Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers were lighting up the scoreboard on a regular basis will return any time in the foreseeable future? No, that conclusion cannot be drawn from one game on national television.
But just 24 hours later at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers and Dallas Stars engaged in a 7-6 game won by the visitors. The New York defense and goalie Henrik Lundqvist have developed some major leaks, and the Stars have had problems in that area all season. The result was a goal fest that left everyone wondering what in the name of Eddie Giacomin was going on?
Do high-scoring games mean better hockey is being played? No, because it depends on your definition of what “better hockey” is.
It certainly means that more exciting hockey is being played. There’s something about the back of the net puffing up when a shot blazes past a goaltender and the home arena exploding with cheers, red lights, sirens and goal songs that is thrilling. While the visiting team’s goals come with no such celebrations, they are often accompanied by head slaps, oh-my-Gods and loud epithets.
Prior to these goal explosions in Pittsburgh and New York, the NHL had featured far too many 1-0, 2-1 and 3-0 games.
The entertainment value of many of the games played in the 2016-17 NHL has been questioned by many of the game’s top observers in newspaper and online columns from coast to coast. The point that many of them have made is that, as the NHL continues to emphasize the speed of its skaters, many of the other aspects of the game have dipped dramatically.
The solid body check in the middle of the ice or performed legally in the corners has almost disappeared. They are so rare that one solid body check – such as the one that Boston’s Torey Krug leveled on the Islanders’ Stephen Gionta on Monday – was featured on many of the highlight shows. It was as if the producers at the NHL Network said, “Look what we have here,” and made that one of the keys to the game in a shocking 4-0 Islanders victory.
Then there’s fighting. There’s no rational argument that should allow two skilled professionals to engage in sanctioned fisticuffs in the middle of the game. However, it’s often an emotionally satisfying moment in which street justice is either meted out or attempted.
Fighting has been all but eliminated from the game as teams get rid of enforcers and replace them with flyers. When two willing combatants stand with fists raised, linesmen are often rushing in to prevent them from engaging before the first punch is thrown.
Then there’s the defensive emphasis that includes the 1-2-2 trap defense and the frequent icing calls that stop or slow down what should be the fastest game in the world.
Longtime fans will stick with the sport no matter how it is played, but the casual sports fan has rarely fully engaged with the NHL.
The recent Washington-Pittsburgh engagement and the Dallas-Rangers duel may or may not indicate that a return to offensive ways is on the horizon. High-scoring games almost always make the game more popular, and that drives the meters.
With a Feb. 4 deadline approaching that requires all goaltenders to wear new and streamlined pads, that can only be good for adding goals to the scoreboard.
More goals mean more excitement, and that’s good for the NHL. We purists may still adore the 1-0 or 2-1 game, but the NHL needs more fans and not more aficionados.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy