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Scoring is down, and obstruction seems to be up again in NHL

Welcome to the new NHL, which is beginning to resemble the old NHL.

Scoring is down, and obstruction again is becoming a common element of play. Referees, many Penguins said, are allowing the clutching and grabbing that became ingrained in the game a decade ago to resurface.

The Penguins are particularly unsettled by this because special teams have marked a significant part of their success this season. Lately, special teams play has been rare.

"I don't necessarily think the play has gotten cleaner," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "(But) there are few power-play opportunities out there for every team."

The Penguins averaged more than four power-play opportunities per game through the end of December. Since Jan. 1, they are averaging 2.76 power-play chances.

"It's a playoff mentality right now," Bylsma said. "You might only get one or two in a game."

The NHL dismissed the notion that games are being called differently.

"Officials have not been instructed to loosen or change the standard on obstruction fouls," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said, "and we don't believe they have."

Said Terry Gregson, senior vice president of officiating: "There has been no change in standard in any area of enforcement."

The Elias Sports Bureau, which documents detailed statistics for various sports, told the Tribune-Review that it does not track how many obstruction penalties are called from one season to the next.

Still, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said players believe a change has taken place.

"After the (2004-05) lockout, if a guy chipped a puck by you, you couldn't touch him," he said. "If you did, it was a penalty every single time. You just had to turn and go get it."

Not anymore.

Instead of skating toward the puck when it is chipped in deep, defensemen have been subtly rubbing forwards into the glass and seemingly almost always getting away with it. This infuriated fans and star players for years before the NHL cracked down after the work stoppage.

"(The NHL) didn't tell us they were going to go easy on us (defensemen)," Orpik said. "But it's pretty obvious that it has changed."

Many Penguins, including Orpik, said they believe the concussion epidemic might be altering how games are refereed.

The NHL finds itself in a dilemma. Keeping the game fast and open, without interference, promotes offense and has received fan approval.

However, many believe that slowing the pace of play would minimize high-impact collisions, which could help reduce concussions.

"Before the rules changed (to discourage obstruction)," former Penguins coach Scotty Bowman told the Tribune-Review recently, "you didn't see people getting concussions like this."

Former NHL star Eric Lindros, who had his career derailed because of concussions, suggested in an interview with the Trib last year that the game would be safer if obstruction were permitted.

Orpik cited concussion prevention as the likely reason for fewer penalties.

"Maybe that's what it is," he said, "trying to slow the game down."

Whatever the reason, penalties aren't being called at the same rate as earlier this season. And it appears to be affecting scoring. Teams are averaging 5.47 goals per game, down from 5.83 in 2008-09. Scoring has trended down every season since then.

Center Evgeni Malkin, the league's leading scorer, will finish with 99 points should he maintain his current pace. The last time an Art Ross Trophy winner finished with fewer than 100 points was when Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis produced 94 points in the 2003-04 season.

"There just haven't been as many power plays," Bylsma said. "Going into games, you know that."

Penalties on decline

> > Total power plays in Penguins' games this season:

October: 94 in 13 games (7.23 per game, 4.23 for the Penguins)

November: 98 in 12 games (8.16 per game, 4.25 for Penguins)

December: 102 in 13 games (7.84 per game, 3.92 for Penguins)

Since January 1: 79 in 16 games (4.93 per game, 2.76 for Penguins)

> > NHL goals per game

2008-09: 5.83 goals per game

2009-10: 5.68 goals per game

2010-11: 5.59 goals per game

2011-12: 5.47 goals per game

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