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.

Fighting it: No Patrice Bergeron for Bruins once again

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As cool as it was at the time for many, Patrice Bergeron‘s fight against Blake Wheeler is … honestly, a good reminder why players like Bergeron rarely drop the gloves.

Multiple outlets including CSNNE.com’s Joe Haggerty report that Bergeron will miss Sunday afternoon’s game against the Detroit Red Wings (which you can watch on NBC).

We don’t know a ton about the injury aside from the fact that the multiple Selke-winner is considered day-to-day.

People don’t seem overly concerned about this issue, but you have to wonder if Bergeron made a bad choice, especially considering his history of concussion issues.

You can watch the bout that may or may not have left him injured in the video above.

Eichel makes everyone look silly, Varlamov gets the early hook

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You know, with Connor McDavid hogging so much attention, it’s about time that Jack Eichel provided us with another awesome goal.

That tally came at the Colorado Avalanche’s (and especially Semyon Varlamov‘s) expense as that was the Buffalo Sabres first shot of the game.

Patrick Roy apparently felt like this just wasn’t Varlamov’s afternoon, as Colorado’s head coach decided to pull him after Varly allowed two goals on as many shots. Evander Kane nabbed the other goal for Buffalo.

You can watch the goal in the video above, which reminds us that “Eichel Tower” might not be a unique pun.

Another shot of it:

Check out Kane’s goal, too:

To be fair to Varlamov, Calvin Pickard has already allowed a goal as well. The Sabres are currently off to a 3-0 lead, and maybe a small roll considering how well they played against Montreal on Friday?

NHL on NBC: Red Wings, Bruins fight for Atlantic positioning

Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin (71) keeps Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara (33) from the puck in the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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Both the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins are finding new ways to win these days, and while they might not be as obvious contenders as they once were, each team can still be dangerous.

Sunday’s NBC game proves enticing for plenty of reasons, yet the most obvious is that if the postseason began today, these two squads would face off in an intriguing first-round matchup.

The Bruins have taken the first two games between these teams in 2015-16, but they might be forced to face the Red Wings without crucial forward Patrice Bergeron, who may have been injured during an unlikely fight with Blake Wheeler.

Detroit features Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk as usual, although Dylan Larkin is a new, ultra-speedy forward who is worthy of plenty of attention in his own right.

While Jeff Blashill continues to establish himself following up Mike Babcock, Claude Julien recently hit a milestone with his 500th win and earned plaudits from CSNNE.com as one of the best coaches in the league.

(Speaking of milestones, Brad Richards is expected to play in his 1,100th game.)

Boston currently holds the second spot in the Atlantic with 66 points in 55 games played, but Detroit is right behind them with 65 in as many contests. With the Tampa Bay Lightning hovering nearby, each team likely recognizes this as an important game.

Goalie nods: Backups battle as Kinkaid faces Enroth

Los Angeles Kings goalie Jhonas Enroth, of Sweden, deflects a shot off the stick of a Colorado Avalanche player in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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The New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings prefer to lean on workhorse goalies Cory Schneider and Jonathan Quick respectively, but Sunday presents a change of pace.

In the Kings’ case, Jhonas Enroth is playing in part because of (what Los Angeles hopes is) a minor injury to Quick.

It’s true that the under-sized goalie sports a mediocre 4-4-1 record, but he’s given the Kings legitimate chances to win games considering his impressive (especially for a backup) save percentage of .925. Perhaps he can earn a few more reps if he plays well in what may be a tight game?

Speaking of earning more reps, Keith Kinkaid must continue to work to prove that he’s able to make the jump from AHL goalie to at least an NHL backup. The Kings aren’t likely to make it easy for him, either.

Elsewhere …

Avalanche at Sabres: Semyon Varlamov vs. Robin Lehner

Bruins at Red Wings: Possibly Tuukka Rask vs. Petr Mrazek

Blues at Lightning: Best guess – Brian Elliott vs. Ben Bishop

Flyers at Rangers: Steve Mason vs. (possibly) Henrik Lundqvist