Wednesday, October 18, 2006

When Bobby Hull introduced the hockey stick with the curved blade during his heyday in the 1960s, it was deemed more dangerous than a scatter gun and the degree of the curve was legislated.

Last summer, at the urging of Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee, who had seen what Alex Ovechkin could do with a restrained blade, the NHL added a quarter inch to the degree the blade could be bent, to three-quarters of an inch from a half-inch.

It was hoped scoring would increase as players used a device that at times baffled goalies, but so far that hasn’t happened. In fact, there have been few players who have decided to go to the more radical curve.

Scoring through Monday’s games, the league said yesterday, was actually down from the same period a year ago, dropping to 6.0 goals a game from 6.4 at the start of the 2005-06 season. League officials had no explanation for the decline but said the drop was at both even strength and on power plays.

“I thought there would be more asking for the bigger curve but that hasn’t happened,” said Peter Marshall, a sales rep for TPS sticks. “You would have thought the Europeans would have gone back to bigger curves, but I haven’t seen that, either.”

Curved blades in Europe generally are more radical than those allowed in the NHL. A three-quarter of an inch blade is normal and most players are brought up using it.

“I don’t want to use curve like I use in Russia,” Ovechkin said. “Last year, I play with different curve and play OK (52 goals, 106 points). I have new sticks coming, maybe curve just a little more. I want curve to be NHL curve.”

Russian Alexander Semin and Slovak Richard Zednik both have curves that a year ago might have been illegal but are within the rules this season. When asked yesterday, every North American player said he had no plans to change the degree of the curve.

“I haven’t noticed a difference,” goalie Olie Kolzig said. “I even thought [Jaromir] Jagr would have a bigger curve, but it looked the same.”

Brent Johnson, Kolzig’s backup, said a larger curve makes the puck difficult to handle.

“Definitely more difficult to know where it’s heading,” he said. “Some sticks you can read … and pretty much know what area the puck is headed.”

Johnson said pucks coming off a stick with a straight blade, like the ones used by John LeClair of Pittsburgh, are perhaps the most difficult to judge.

“It’s impossible to know where he’s shooting because it comes off different every time,” he said.

A goalie also has to watch whether a player is shooting off his heel, as Semin does, or his toe, like Ovechkin does, because that can change the trajectory.

“Maybe [the bigger curve is] why Johnny and I are getting hit in the head more in practice,” Kolzig said after Matt Bradley nailed him yesterday.

Notes — Is Ovechkin hurt as a Russian paper claims? “If he is, he’s not getting treatment here,” Hanlon said. …

Defenseman John Erskine, who hasn’t played for the Caps, was placed on waivers. If he clears, he goes to Hershey.

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