Philadelphia Flyers v Boston Bruins

Is the neutral zone trap creeping back into the game?


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.

Sens match season-high for goals, beat Dallas 7-4

Bobby Ryan, Antti Niemi
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DALLAS (AP) Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored two third-period goals and the Ottawa Senators held off the Dallas Stars for a 7-4 victory Tuesday night.

Ottawa was outshot 37-20 but scored three unassisted goals after takeaways, one on the power play and another short-handed, by Pageau.

Craig Anderson made 33 saves in his third straight win, including two shutouts. He had his scoreless streak snapped at 147:04, when Patrick Sharp scored in the second period.

Pageau scored on two breakaways, including his league-leading third short-handed, and added an assist. He has six goals this season.

Dallas goalies Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen combined to make only 13 saves.

The Senators’ Mike Hoffman also had two goals, one into an empty net. Mark Stone had a goal and two assists. Bobby Ryan and Milan Michalek also had goals.

NHL leader Jamie Benn scored his 15th and 16th goals for Dallas. Benn assisted on Tyler Seguin‘s goal.

The Senators are 4-0-2 in their last six games. Dallas’ loss ended the Stars’ five-game winning streak.

Ottawa didn’t have a shot on goal for the first 7:10, but its attempt went in for a 1-0 lead. Ryan took away the puck in the left faceoff circle, skated in front of Niemi and tucked the puck into the right corner.

Michalek scored at 18:49 of the first period for a 2-0 lead. Stone won a battle along the left-wing boards, and the puck went to Pageau. He passed to Michalek in the center of the left circle, and Michalek sent a wrist shot past Niemi into the upper right corner.

Sharp finally got to Anderson at 7:04 of the second. Cody Eakin tapped a pass ahead to Sharp, who sent a slap shot past the goalie.

The Senators regained a two-goal lead, when Stone intercepted a pass from the Stars’ Patrick Eaves at the blue line, stepped to the top of the slot and scored on a wrist shot at 12:33.

Lehtonen then replaced Niemi, who had allowed three goals in nine shots. The first shot Lehtonen faced was Hoffman’s goal from the top of the left circle on the power play.

Niemi re-entered the game at 1:05 of the third period, after Lehtonen made two saves. On the first shot Niemi faced, he allowed a short-handed breakaway goal by Pageau on a shot that trickled between the goalie’s legs.

Benn scored on a short-handed breakaway at 6:07. Just 1:57 later, Seguin scored from the right circle.

NOTES: Ryan has at least one point in nine straight games (4 goals, 7 assists, 11 points). … Anderson came into the game with two shutouts in a row after an overtime loss. … Dallas D Jason Demers (lower-body injury) was scratched from the lineup, but D Jordie Benn returned after missing Saturday’s game because of illness. … The Stars’ John Klingberg took the NHL lead with his 20th assist on Sharp’s goal. He and Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, who assisted on Hoffman’s goal, are 1-2 in scoring among the league’s defensemen. . Dallas had won the previous seven games against the Senators.

Coyotes GM ‘called right away’ on Hamonic

Don Maloney
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You can add Arizona to the list of teams that tried to get in on the Travis Hamonic sweepstakes.

“[He’s] a talented player,” Coyotes GM Don Maloney said, per the Arizona Republic. “We certainly called right away, but we do not have a good fit for them right now.

“That’s the bottom line. They’re looking for a ready-made complement player.”

Hamonic, who requested a trade out of New York, is garnering plenty of interest across the league. TSN’s Darren Dreger reported five clubs — Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado and Minnesota — were in the mix, with Sportsnet floating potential trade chips like the Jets’ Jacob Trouba, and the Flames’ T.J. Brodie.

It’s unsurprising the Coyotes didn’t have a fit for Isles GM Garth Snow.

It’s hard to imagine — nearly impossible, really — to think Oliver Ekman-Larsson would be on the move, and the rest of the Arizona defense is comprised of unheralded youngsters (Michael Stone, Connor Murphy) or grizzled vets (Nicklas Grossmann, Zbynek Michalek).

But Maloney’s remarks are still noteworthy, because he more we hear about the Hamonic situation, the clearer the asking price gets.

Related: Hamonic willing to finish season with Isles

Star struck: Sens chase Niemi after three goals on nine shots (Update: And now he’s back)

Milan Michalek, Antti Niemi
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Bet Antti Niemi misses playing Buffalo.

Niemi, who stopped 46 of 47 shots in back-to-back wins over the Sabres last week, was hooked during Tuesday’s game against the Senators after allowing three goals on nine shots.

In Niemi’s defense, tonight’s goals weren’t exactly his fault.

John Klingberg coughed up the puck badly on Bobby Ryan‘s opening tally…

And on Ottawa’s second goal, Jyrki Jokipakka lost a board battle moments before Milan Michalek snapped one home:

The Sens’ third marker also came on a turnover.

Update: Well, this is quite the night for Dallas netminders. Kari Lehtonen replaced Niemi, allowed a goal, then got hurt in this collision with Klingberg, which forced him from the game and Niemi back into action.

Foley aware of Seattle reports, but says Vegas is ‘proceeding as if we will play in 2017’

Gary Bettman, Bill Foley
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Bill Foley, the man behind Las Vegas’ prospective NHL expansion team, says he knows about reports claiming the league is keeping an eye on a proposed Seattle arena.

He also says he isn’t going to worry about things out of his control.

“I’m aware of what’s going on (in Seattle) but in my communication with the league, our situation isn’t dependent on third parties,” Foley said Tuesday, per the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We believe we’re in good shape and we’re proceeding as if we will play in 2017.”

Over the weekend, a Seattle Times piece suggested the NHL had yet to award Vegas or Quebec City an expansion franchise because the league is “avoiding any expansion decision until after an upcoming Seattle City Council vote likely to decide the fate of Chris Han­sen’s proposed Sodo District arena.”

The piece also suggested Seattle could be granted an expansion club for the 2018-19 campaign.


That vote, on granting Hansen part of Occidental Avenue South for his arena, is expected by January. No one knows how it will go, only that the lead-up should be politically charged and fiercely contested.

But passing it — future legal appeals notwithstanding — paves the way for Hansen to obtain his Master Use Permit and have his arena “shovel ready” should he choose to build.

And that means, once a vote passes, it’s entirely possible the NHL could conditionally award Seattle an expansion team.

To his credit, Foley remains solely focused on his Vegas bid — not what potential rival bids could bring to the table. And while he confirmed he has yet to be invited to the Dec. 7 NHL Board of Governor’s meeting in Pebble Beach, he re-iterated his only objective is to strengthen Sin City’s case for a hockey team.

“I’m focused on trying to find a place to build our practice facility,” he said. “I’m focused on the new arena and our fans who’ve put down deposits on season tickets.”