Is the neutral zone trap creeping back into the game?

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While the 2004-05 lockout was just about a complete disaster for the NHL, the league was forced to make a few changes that improved the game as a whole. It’s true that the elimination of the two-line pass rule was designed to open up the game, but the most important alterations didn’t involve the introduction of a new rule. Instead the league simply increased its emphasis on referees calling obstruction and interference penalties.

These changes helped (and still help) talented, speedy players make a bigger impact on the game and forced many plodding, low-skill skaters out of the league. While the influx of young talent during the last several seasons is evident, these changes allowed those youngsters to shine brighter and sooner.

Of course, there’s a fine line between opening up the game and neutering the physicality that helps fill the seats. Darren Eliot of Sports Illustrated writes that referees are gradually calling less penalties on minor infractions in the neutral zone and elsewhere, something that coaches such as Guy Boucher of the Tampa Bay Lightning and even typically aggressive coach Peter Laviolette of the Philadelphia Flyers are exploiting to considerable success.

Speed away from the puck was the main idea and it is the essence of the game at its best. Yet, neutral zone sludge is slowly beginning to build up across the league. The only way that happens is when defensive players who have little or no speed are allowed to clog lanes and slow their faster opponents by neutralizing them with subtle grabs, blocks and nudges instead of being forced to defend with equal quickness.

Offensive forechecking suffers when the area between the bluelines becomes a gauntlet of human speed bumps and rumble strips. Less speed means less quality time in the offensive zone, and that quality time is what the league wants. See: the recent ingenious tweaks to face-offs on icings (no personnel changes for the offending team) and for penalty calls (an offensive zone face-off no matter where the infraction occurred). But those are controlled situations that aid the offensive team. The intention of the 2005 no-interference mandate was to help the offense while play was underway.

The eyeball test tells me the game is now backsliding too much. Five players idling in the neutral zone in a 1-3-1 configuration has become more prevalent than the stretch pass. I even saw up-tempo aficionado Peter Laviolette of the Flyers pull all five of his guys into the neutral zone for long stretches recently. And why not? It conserves energy because less skating is involved. Defensive players are getting away with more while moving their feet less.

It’s not time to get alarmed, but the league must make sure that the quality of play remains at a high level. The NHL is probably feeling great about the steady overall improvement in ratings and general interest, but they shouldn’t see moderate success as an invitation to rest on their laurels.

Roberto Luongo leaves game with apparent injury, as Panthers fall to Penguins

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The Florida Panthers lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday. Making matters worse was the fact their goalie Roberto Luongo left the game in the third period with an apparent hand injury.

The injury occurred after a collision in the crease with Penguins forward Conor Sheary.

Luongo immediately went down to the ice in pain. A replay from above the net showed Luongo’s right hand getting caught in an awkward position against the post after coming into contact with Sheary as he cut through in front of the crease in pursuit of the puck.

The injury forced James Reimer off the bench and into the game with the Panthers trailing by a goal. MacKenzie Weegar tied the game for Florida before Sheary scored the eventual winner about eight minutes later, on a night when the Penguins fired 48 shots on the two Panthers goalies.

Luongo gave up three goals on 36 shots before leaving the game. The Panthers now head out on the road. They’ll visit the Washington Capitals on Saturday.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Video: More offside drama had Sabres coach Phil Housley up in arms

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Just hours after the NHL admitted to an offside challenge error, there was another controversy during the Sabres-Canucks game on Friday.

Vancouver appeared to take the lead on a Daniel Sedin goal. However, Buffalo coach Phil Housley challenged the play for offside, after replays showed Jake Virtanen may not have had complete control of the puck as he broke in over the blue line.

The following challenge resulted in a brutally long review. For Buffalo, it was also unsuccessful as, surprisingly, officials deemed Virtanen did have control of the puck as he entered the zone. The goal counted, Vancouver took the lead.

Housley was not happy about it.

Not only was the challenge unsuccessful, but the Sabres were penalized for delay of game as a result.

From the NHL:

After reviewing all available replays and consulting with the Linesman, NHL Hockey Operations staff confirmed that Vancouver’s Jake Virtanen had possession and control of the puck as he entered the attacking zone prior to the goal. According to Rule 83.1, “a player actually controlling the puck who shall cross the line ahead of the puck shall not be considered ‘off-side,’ provided he had possession and control of the puck prior to his skates crossing the blue line.”

Therefore the original call stands – good goal Vancouver Canucks.

It took 4:27 to come to a decision, too.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Devils place goalie Cory Schneider on injured reserve

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) The New Jersey Devils placed goalie Cory Schneider on injured reserve with a lower-body injury suffered Thursday night in a 5-4 overtime victory at Ottawa.

Schneider left after the second period. Keith Kinkaid replaced him and stopped all nine shots he faced to earn the victory.

With Schneider sidelined, Kinkaid was expected to start Friday night at home against San Jose.

The Devils recalled goalie Scott Wedgewood from Binghamton of the American Hockey League.

The Devils catch a scheduling break with a week off until their next game Oct. 27, the first day Schneider is eligible to return.

Schneider is 4-1-0 in six games this season with a 3.30 goals-against average.

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Andreas Athanasiou, Red Wings finally settle on one-year deal

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The contract stalemate between the Detroit Red Wings and Andreas Athanasiou is finally over.

On Friday, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported that the two sides struck a deal that will see the 23-year-old forward back in the lineup, at least for this season. It’s a one-year deal worth $1.387 million.

Due to Detroit’s tight salary cap situation, the deal has not been officially registered with the NHL because general manager Ken Holland needs to free up space in order to fit Athanasiou’s contract.

Athanasiou, who was a restricted free agent this summer, was seeking a two-year deal worth around $2.5 million per season. The Red Wings, meanwhile, were holding firm on a one- or two-year deal carrying a $1.9 million AAV. As the stalemate dragged on, he began practicing with Swiss side HC Lugano, but did not sign a contract. He had until Dec. 1 to make an NHL return in order to be eligible to play this season. The KHL card was played, but as Torey Krug showed, that move is always a clear bluff.

The one-year pact is essentially a “show-me” deal for Athanasiou, who scored 18 goals and recorded 29 points last season. He finished second on the Red Wings in even strength goals (17) in 2016-17 and tallied a pair of overtime winners. A good year and with some salary off the books next summer, he can cash in with a longer-term contract. He’ll once again be an RFA next summer, so Detroit will control his rights, but he’ll have arbitration rights.

According to MLive.com’s Ansar Khan, along with the contract Athanasiou has been promised a minutes bump from the 13:27 he played last season, as well as regular time on both special teams units.

Detroit is off to a 4-3-0 start and averaging 3.14 goals per game. Once Athanasiou arrives from Switzerland and gets up to speed — possibly with an AHL conditioning stint — his presence will certainly be a boost to the Red Wings’ lineup.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.: