NHL product highly entertaining

| Friday, April 6, 2007

It's easy to lose track of some critical points when you're busily ripping the NHL for everything from lousy television ratings to excessive violence to pea-brained decision-making in regard to all-star rosters, suspensions, etc.

I should know.

I've spent plenty of time and newsprint lambasting the league for all the above and more.

But the critical points are these:

• The NHL product is worlds better than it was before the lockout of 2004-05, even if scoring is slightly down this season.

• The playoffs again will be wildly, ridiculously entertaining, as they were last season.

The worst thing about the old NHL -- say, from the mid-1990s through the pre-lockout season of 2003-04 -- was the way a 1-0 lead felt more like 10-0. It still does when you're playing the New Jersey Devils, but even the Devils have lost five games in which they scored first and three in which they led after two periods.

It took about five seconds of watching games last season to see the radical difference in quality of play compared to 2003-04.

Suddenly, players could skate unimpeded through the neutral zone, with or without the puck. They could drive to the net and forecheck at full speed, too. The elimination of the red line made home-run passes possible, and 12 percent of all games were decided by a wonderful new institution called a shootout.

Scoring shot up 18 percent, the largest jump in 75 years.

You had to give the NHL immense credit for devising ways to liven up the product -- save it, actually -- during a lockout year that nearly killed it. The change was nothing short of revolutionary.

A different game emerged, one with a premium on skating and skill. Small, athletic players who couldn't play in the old league thrived in the new one. No-talent hacks nearly disappeared.

Of all the statistics that reflected the change, none was more profound than this: There were 39 comeback victories in the 2006 playoffs, compared to just 21 in 2004.

What's more, the number or comeback victories from two or more goals down tripled, from two in 2004 to six last season, the most since 1998. Nobody should expect this year's Stanley Cup tournament to be any less entertaining.

Consider the Penguins' games from the past three months. About every other one, it seems, has been played at breakneck speed, replete with ferocious hitting, memorable goals and improbable comebacks on both sides.

It will only get better in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, overall scoring in the NHL was down this season, from 6.2 goals per game to 5.9, according to the league's statistician, Benny Ercolani, while even-strength scoring was slightly up.

Power-play opportunities have decreased, from 11.7 per game last season to 9.7, which tells you one of two things: Either the players adjusted to the rules crackdown and committed fewer infractions, or the officials eased up a bit and allowed some of the interference to creep back into the game.

Could be a bit of both, but let's not be too harsh on the officials.

We might lose track of the more critical points.

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