- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

When the NHL announced during the offseason it would crack down on obstruction penalties, the news was greeted with both joy that the game would be allowed to open up and more scoring would result and ridicule, because the league had made similar statements previously only to back off.
The jury has yet to return a final verdict, but preliminary findings are starting to trickle in. The biggest complaint from players is the same complaint they have had all along, that there is no consistency in officiating and that officials seem to have differing definitions of what constitutes penalties in certain situations.
The obstruction penalties were designed to facilitate a freer flow of players who are not in possession of the puck so that swift, highly skilled players would be able to do the tasks they were being paid to perform and so paying fans could see them.
In the past, skilled players were deliberately held up or slowed down by a variety of means, effectively negating their skills. Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux has been one of the most vocal critics of obstruction methods, but with the re-enforced rules in place, he is leading the league in scoring this season with 10 goals and 34 points (but is still a minus-2; linemate Alexei Kovalev is minus-10).
Others have not fared so well. Washington's Jaromir Jagr, plus-3, is ambushed shift after shift once he crosses below the top of the circles. Once he takes possession of the puck, it's like open season he is the object of a gang attack. Perhaps it is because he is so adept at fending for himself that he doesn't seem to get the benefit of obstruction calls, even when they are justified.
"I have been a little frustrated with the down-low play," said Caps coach Bruce Cassidy. "I think [the officials] have kind of forgotten that you can still mug guys down below the top of the circle. I see that a lot with Jagr every night, and he's so strong that he's not going down. That frustrates me because they'll put us in the box when [opposing] guys go down.
"But it seems that's the way it is with Jagr. But it's just that one guy. Seems like he can control the puck and guys are draped all over him. He's carrying them around. But [the officials] have a better view than I do; they're right there and I'm on the bench."
Washington has been hit with just seven obstruction penalties this season, one fewer than its opposition.
"We were told specifically in September to get players to change the way they've been playing, and we've tried to emphasize that so there's no excuse some nights," Cassidy said. "We've certainly earned a lot of our penalties, but I also think we've been snubbed when it comes to [Jagr]. But we're getting better, too; we're not killing eight or nine a night like we were early in the season."
But there is little consistency there either. On Tuesday night, Washington had nine power plays; last Friday in Chicago the Caps had just one, and it was nullified after only 10 seconds.
"Some games are called good; in other games the obstruction stuff is slipping away," said forward Robert Lang. "What I am saying is that every game is different. Some nights you get the calls, other nights you don't. It would be nicer if every night was the same."
Said one teammate who asked not to be identified: "They still have to call penalties on people that are hooking and holding and grabbing guys with the puck, and a lot of times they don't. The older [officials], they seem to know the difference between battling for position and obstruction, and they let you fight for what you can get legally. But when the guy is being mugged, that's when you have to get a call, and that's not being done all the time."
Notes Jagr missed practice yesterday with what was described as a cold, something he has had for 3-4 days. Sergei Gonchar also didn't take the ice although he was in the trainers' room for treatment. Both are expected to play tonight against Minnesota. Retired defenseman Rod Langway will be honored in pregame ceremonies Saturday night when the Caps play Atlanta. Langway was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov.4.



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