- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

In 1,112 home games over 28 NHL seasons, the Washington Capitals had never been the host of a scoreless game until their April 5 snoozefest against Ottawa.
In 46 seasons since 1955-56, the NHL never had averaged less than 5.28 goals a game until this year's 5.24 average heading into today's season finales.
Only four players had scored 40 goals this season six was the previous low since 1969-70, except for lockout-shortened 1994-1995. And unless scoring king Jarome Iginla of Calgary poured in four points in his final game last night there won't be a 100-point scorer for just the second time (not counting 1994-1995) in 34 years.
"When we played New Jersey the other day, it was like watching paint dry," Dallas All-Star center Mike Modano said. "It was no fun. The arena was like a morgue."
Philadelphia right wing Mark Recchi starred on the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup thanks to an offense that averaged 4.3 goals. Recchi's Flyers have had a better season than the Penguins did 11 years ago, but they had scored 111 fewer goals.
"It was obviously more enjoyable for us and for the fans back when I was in Pittsburgh, but you've got to make the best of it," Recchi said. "It's definitely a tougher game now. Every team checks so well. Everyone's so disciplined. Everybody plays their systems so well. There's such a commitment to defense because that's the only way the expansion teams [eight of them this decade, four in the last four years] can compete. I don't foresee run-and-gun hockey coming back anytime soon."
Not if the coaches can help it. With teams desperate for home playoff gate revenue to pay for skyrocketing player salaries in a sport with little television money, there's ever more pressure on coaches, whose average tenure is less than three seasons.
"Coaches pretty much play not to lose," said four-time 40-goal scorer Peter Bondra of the Washington Capitals. "You start the game with one point and try not to lose it, especially at the end of the year and especially on the road. That starts with playing solid defense."
Usually that means the dreaded trap, in which a team's five skaters collapse on the puck to try and prevent the opposition from getting into the offensive zone.
"People aren't forechecking anymore," said Detroit scout Mark Howe, an All-Star defenseman in the 1980s. "They're sitting back and playing defense. Nobody traps more than Montreal. I saw them beat Jersey 1-0, and they didn't forecheck once the whole game. Jersey couldn't get past the neutral zone. Was it boring? Yes. But tactically it was perfect."
In the early 1980s, Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers terrorized the NHL for as many goals a game as two teams produce on average today. Detroit, the NHL's worst team in 1985-1986, scored a league-low 266 goals. No team is going to score that many this year even though each plays two more games. Washington's Ron Wilson said that's largely because he and his fellow coaches are superior to their predecessors from Gretzky's glory days.
"We're not out there trying not to score," Wilson said. "It's not a lack of offense. Defense is what wins. Why do goals-against go way down in the playoffs? Any time there's parity [only Florida and Atlanta have been out of the playoff chase forever, and only Detroit clinched a berth weeks ago], there are fewer goals.
"In the so-called golden years in the '50s and '60s, there were fewer goals scored than now because the talent was distributed pretty equally among the six teams. Today the goaltenders are more athletic and they have better equipment. Penalty-killing is better than ever. And the coaching's better."
Defensemen also have become more mobile as they've gotten bigger. But Flyers All-Star center Jeremy Roenick still blames the trap, which 1995 champion Devils and 1996 runner-up Florida popularized in their underdog runs to the Cup finals.
"The trap is the worst thing that has ever been brought into hockey," Roenick said. "It's the game's biggest enemy. It takes away the speed and transition of the game. When skaters come through the neutral zone with speed, all the guys standing around can do to slow them down is clutch and grab. The game's played in neutral ice. When I broke in [1989], I could have two or three 2-on-1s a game, maybe a 3-on-1 or a breakaway. Now you're lucky if you get a 2-on-1 every other night."
So what can be done to increase scoring? There were actually fewer goals (4.6 a game) in the 10 matchups between the top six teams (Canada, United States, Russia, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic) at the Salt Lake City Olympics than in the NHL despite the larger ice surface, which is supposed to open up the game, and without the red line, which supposedly slows it down. In 1999, the NHL allowed goals to be scored from the crease, and the new synthetic sticks used by the vast majority of players produce harder shots.
But goalies and defensemen aren't going to become smaller or less athletic, and the NHL isn't going to bring back smaller rinks like Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium. Some have suggested moving the nets back toward the rear boards to cause more traffic in front, but then the neutral zone and probably the use of the trap would grow. Another idea is to make penalties nonreleasable; in other words, power plays would last for their full duration, no matter if a goal is scored. But that might make officials more likely to swallow their whistles on borderline calls, especially in third periods.
"Even if they change the rules to open up the game, coaches will come up with new ways to play defense to shut it down again," Modano lamented.
It took two-time 20-goal scorer Steve Konowalchuk of Washington 26 games to score the first goal of his injury-shortened 2001-2002 season, but he still prefers today's NHL to that of his rookie year of 1992-1993, when games averaged 7.25 goals, two more than now.
"This is good competitive hockey," Konowalchuk said. "Is a 7-6 game more exciting than a 3-2 game? People always seem to want more goals, but they go crazy in Europe over 1-0 soccer games. There are fewer mistakes than there used to be. It's more of a chess match. Every game's so close, you don't want to be the guy making that critical mistake."
During 74 percent of this year's action, the score has been tied or within a goal.
"If you could tell me that if one team scores seven goals, the other would score six, fine, but back when Gretzky was scoring 200 points a year, there were too many one-sided games," NHL vice president Frank Brown said. "I've never seen a season like this one where all the teams came in just flooring it because they knew that the point they lost in October could be the one that keeps them from making the playoffs in April."
The last word belongs to the Capitals' Jaromir Jagr, a five-time scoring champion.
"You can't live in the past," Jagr said. "Times have changed. I understand that I'm not going to score 150 points anymore. That doesn't mean the game is worse. There's more to hockey than just scoring goals. If you just want scoring, watch basketball."

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