Philadelphia Flyers v Boston Bruins

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.

Penguins place Kris Letang on injured reserve

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 17:  Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on during the game against Colorado Avalanche at PPG Paints Arena on October 17, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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The Pittsburgh Penguins are on their first real losing streak of the season (three games) and are now going to be without their No. 1 defenseman for at least the next few games after the team announced on Monday morning that Kris Letang has been placed on injured reserve.

Along with that move, the Penguins also recalled forward Jake Guentzel and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.

Letang was injured during the Penguins’ 6-4 loss in Detroit over the weekend, playing only 2:06 before exiting the game with an apparent leg injury.

Injuries have been a constant problem for Letang in his career and have allowed him to play in more than 70 games just once since 2010, and it usually has a pretty significant impact on the team when he is out.

While Sidney Crosby is the Penguins’ best player, there is an argument to be made that Letang is their most important and the one player they can not afford to lose given the minutes he plays, the impact he has on the game in all three zones, and the fact he is probably on any given night on one of the five best all-around defensemen in hockey. There is a pretty drastic change to their offense when Letang is out of the lineup.

Entering this season the Penguins averaged 3.16 goals per game over the previous six seasons with Letang in the lineup (while winning more than 64 percent of their games), versus only 2.73 (and only winning 54 percent of their games) when he has been out of the lineup.

In the 12 games Letang has missed this season they have averaged 3.06 goals, compared to 3.60 in the 30 games he has played.

The Penguins host the Washington Capitals, winners of nine in a row, on Monday night.

PHT Morning Skate: The Canucks’ power play is a big problem

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— Following a six-game winning streak that moved them back into playoff contention the Vancouver Canucks dropped their fourth game in a row on Sunday night, losing 2-1 to Cory Schneider and the New Jersey Devils. A power play unit that is currently 27th in the league on the season and has gone just 1-for-17 during their current losing streak has been a big part of the problem and Ben Kuzma of the Province looked into it following their most recent defeat. [The Province]

— The Washington Capitals’ 5-0 win on Sunday (highlights above) that improved their winning streak to nine games was also the 1,500th win in franchise history. [Washington Capitals]

— Will this be the year Shane Doan waives his no-trade clause to get a chance at the Stanley Cup? Elliotte Friedman speculates that if the Coyotes, who currently have the second worst record in the league, approached the now-40-year-old Doan about a trade that he might be willing to accept it. He has four goals and eight assists in 40 games this season. [Sportsnet]

— Edmonton Oilers forward Drake Caggiula had some fun at the team’s skills competition over the weekend by taking out in the shootout dressed as … Drake. [Edmonton Oilers/YouTube]

— Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi had an update on the status of injured goaltender Jonathan Quick on Sunday and basically said there is “no change” that he is still “a long way off.” He has been injured since the season opener and has not played since, making Peter Budaj the team’s starting goaltender this season. Budaj has a .917 save percentage and a 20-11-3 record in Quick’s absence for a Kings team that is hanging on to a playoff spot in the Western Conference [Kings Insider]

— Since their 16-game winning streak came to an end the Columbus Blue Jackets have lost four of their past six games and had to use four different goaltenders over the past four games. Is that post-winning streak hangover something that is going to be good for them in the long run? [Columbus Dispatch]

— The Minnesota Wild extended their winning streak to four games on Sunday night and moved into sole possession of first place with a 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. They now have a two-point lead over the Blackhawks with four games in hand on them. Here are the highlights from Sunday’s game.

 

Oilers recall D-man Oesterle from AHL Condors

EDMONTON, AB - FEBRUARY 23:  Jordan Oesterle #82 of the Edmonton Oilers warms up against the Ottawa Senators on February 23, 2016 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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The Edmonton Oilers made a move Sunday, recalling defenseman Jordan Oesterle from the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL.

In 18 games with the Condors this season, the 24-year-old Oesterle has three goals and 11 points.

The decision comes one day after Oilers defenseman Adam Larsson missed Saturday’s contest against the rival Calgary Flames because of a lower-body injury.

While he isn’t a flashy player, Larsson seems to have made a positive impression on the Oilers coaching staff during his first season in Edmonton following last summer’s blockbuster trade involving scoring winger Taylor Hall.

No surprise this development is leading to questions about the health of Larsson, with the Oilers set to begin the second half of a six-game home stand and sitting second in the Pacific Division standings.

Video: Reaves and Boll drop the gloves in heavyweight bout

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Heavyweight fighters Jared Boll and Ryan Reaves dropped the gloves during the second period of Sunday’s game between the Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues.

Those were some thunderous right hands thrown there, both combatants landing their fair share of punches before officials finally intervened.