NHL ’12 video preview: EA Sports boasts ‘hat trick’ of innovations

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We don’t mean to rub it in, but opening night in October is a long way away. That being said, there are distractions for hockey fans who cannot get enough. Obviously, the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and free agent frenzy provided equal portions silliness and hope for puck enthusiasts. PHT will carry you through these warm, hockey-free months with updates regarding the latest moves, looks into the future and features to tickle your fancy.

One could probably consider September the month in which the light at the end of the tunnel gets a little bigger and brighter. That’s when training camp starts and it’s also the time of year when the next round of NHL video games are released. For the second consecutive year, it seems like EA Sports’ best-selling NHL series won’t have major competition (besides other sports games, TV shows and other bigger picture distractions) with the 2K series in road kill mode.

For those who worry that the software giant will rest on its laurels without another puck-based game making them sweat, it seems like the company will try to bolster its impressive foundation. We’ve already covered the fact that the game will include a Winter Classic mode and shared the September 13 release date/first preview video, but EA provided a more complete view of the biggest changes in store for NHL ’12 recently.

EA unveiled its “hat trick” of innovations, which you can check out in this video from GameTrailers.com.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Here are some of my observations about each innovation after watching that video and reading up on how these changes might impact the game.

1. “Anticipation AI” – The company claims that computer players will do a better job of anticipating the puck changing hands and generally reacting to on-ice events in a more organic way.

2. “Full contact physics” – As I discussed in Todd Marchant’s retirement post, speed used to be an overriding asset in hockey video games. There’s no doubt that fast skating is important in today’s game, but the perceived disparity often makes bigger players seem useless. The reality is that big players are often very useful in the NHL, especially in front of the net. NHL ’12 claims to address that issue better than before. (To be fair, the series made some progress in this area already, but this might be the big leap some were waiting for.)

3. “Dynamic goalies” – This innovation strikes me as the next installment of the “broken sticks” gamble from last year. There are plenty of ways that this could go wrong (example: will the game know if you’re trying to shoot or if you want to initiate contact with a goalie?) but it could add some needed realism to the game. If nothing else, it would be great to see more personality from goalies.

Things look promising overall, but it’s tough to overlook how awkward Zdeno Chara’s battles in front of the net ended up looking. It’s something that Operation Sports also tackled in their preview.

In terms of impact, I do think the physics engine is the biggest deal of the three. It essentially ties into a lot of what’s happening with goalies this year, and it also works to improve and fix much of what was wrong with the physics last year. However, I want to start with a negative here and point out that some ugly animations crop up with the implementation of this physics engine. I think it’s the price you pay, at least for now, to experience more organic moments, but it doesn’t excuse the look of some of the interactions. For example, nudging and bumping some players from behind causes the puck carrier to react in some questionable ways. It’s nice to see some new stumbles, but it’s just not that common for players to be checked down or pushed to the ice from behind as much as they are here. On top of that, some goofiness crops up when the goalies interact with players.

It looks like NHL ’12 could be a significant upgrade over NHL ’11 if EA’s innovations work out as well as advertised. The series has a great track record of delivering on their promises so far, but we’ll keep you updated as more information surfaces and the September 13 release date approaches.

(Screenshot via Operation Sports.)

Jets’ Enstrom undergoes second knee surgery in 12 months

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There’s not much left for Winnipeg to play for — just five regular-season games left, and no playoffs on the horizon — so today’s news that Tobias Enstrom has undergone season-ending knee surgery isn’t a crippling development.

Can’t be good, though.

Enstrom’s had a difficult year health-wise and, at the time of surgery, was dealing with a concussion suffered on a Tom Sestito hit back in early March. Prior to that, he missed time while attending to a family matter in his native Sweden and, prior to that, was shut down late last season to undergo knee surgery.

It’s unclear if today’s procedure was related to the one Enstrom had last March.

It is worth noting that, at the time of last year’s surgery, head coach Paul Maurice noted the 32-year-old had been dealing with the injury for months.

“He’s been able to get through it because of blocks of days off. If he can get a two day block, he’d get a little better and it’s just getting worse,” Maurice said, per Global News. “It got to the point that he’s not recovering and he hasn’t been. He hasn’t been for almost a month now. He’s not recovering enough on his days off for the pain ever to subside.”

All told, Enstrom appeared in 60 games this year, scoring 14 points while averaging just under 22 minutes per night. Next season will be the last of a five-year, $28.75 million deal that carries a $5.75 million cap hit.

Lundqvist will start four of five remaining games

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Henrik Lundqvist has had two tough starts since returning from injury.

The 35-year-old allowed five goals in his first game back, a 6-3 loss to Anaheim Sunday, and five more in his second game, a 5-4 OT loss to San Jose Tuesday.

But Lundqvist is still the No. 1 in New York, and for that reason he’s scheduled to start four of the Rangers’ five remaining regular-season games, with the hope he’ll be able to play his way back into form in time for the postseason.

Lundqvist was not happy after Tuesday’s loss to the Sharks, even though the point the Rangers gained earned them a playoff berth.

“I’m extremely disappointed right now,” he told reporters. “I’m glad we’re in, but I want to get the job done. I want the win. We found a way to lose this one at the end.”

With the loss, Lundqvist’s save percentage fell to .911 on the season. If it finishes at that number, it would be the lowest save percentage of his NHL career.

Antti Raanta‘s save percentage, meanwhile, sits at .922. In his last start, he shut out the Kings in Los Angeles.

The Rangers host Pittsburgh tomorrow and Philadelphia Sunday. Next week, they’re in Washington Wednesday, Ottawa Saturday, and then they close out their schedule at home to Pittsburgh Sunday.

Raanta will start one of the final two games.

The Rangers are likely to face Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs.

Reinhart suggests benching was a stretch

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Two days after Sam Reinhart was bolted to the pine for the entirety of Buffalo’s 3-1 loss to Columbus — his punishment for showing up late to a team stretch — Reinhart discussed the incident, and didn’t sound overly thrilled about how it played out.

“It’s a coach’s decision. It’s a management decision,” Reinhart said, per the Buffalo News. “From my perspective, I would have rather battled it out with my teammates.

“I don’t think five minutes in the morning is going to influence my preparation for a game, but it was a team stretch and I should have been there on time.”

Reinhart also had this to say:

Discipline of this nature is pretty common, though the way Reinhart’s played out was a bit more dramatic. Rather than park him in the press box as a healthy scratch, the Sabres — who didn’t have an extra forward, as Kyle Okposo was out sick — dressed the 21-year-old, then sat him for the entire 60 minutes.

The Buffalo News said the move “would seem to send a deeper message than merely being scratch,” adding that “there has been friction between players and [Sabres head coach Dan] Bylsma throughout the season.”

In the club’s defense, Reinhart is hardly the first young player to be punished for lateness. Nikita Zadorov had repeated issues with punctuality and, after being suspended, was eventually traded to Colorado. Evander Kane was parked for a game last season after sleeping in and missing a practice.

Of course, each situation is unique and some will argue showing up five minutes late for a stretch isn’t on par with what Zadorov and Kane did. Which is fair. That could be why Bylsma said the club might consider a policy change.

And that could by why Reinhart’s teammate, Jack Eichel, tried to put things in perspective.

“We’re obviously not going to hold it over his head here,” Eichel said, per the News. “He didn’t really do too much wrong.”

North Dakota’s Poolman turns pro, signs with Jets

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Another day, another North Dakota departure.

Having already lost freshman Tyson Jost (signed with Colorado) and sophomore Brock Boeser (signed with Vancouver), the school has now learned that junior blueliner Tucker Poolman has signed an entry-level deal with the Jets.

Poolman, 23, was taken by Winnipeg in the fifth round (127th overall) at the ’13 draft. From the Free Press:

UND’s top defenceman was playing between 25 and 30 minutes per game and was the fourth-highest scoring blue-liner in the NCHC. He finished the season with seven goals, 30 points, 14 penalty minutes and a plus-18 rating in 38 games.

Poolman’s final campaign ended on a sour note. He suffered a shoulder injury during the NCHC championship game and was unable to play in North Dakota’s season-ending loss to Boston University in the NCAA championships.