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Slashing crackdown, infusion of youth boost NHL scoring

By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

The nets aren’t bigger, the goaltenders aren’t smaller and yet scoring is up significantly around the NHL.

Through the first two months of the season, goals are up more than 12 percent from the same time a year ago, including a whopping 14 percent increase on the power play and a 38 percent spike in short-handed goals.

”That’s what the league wanted,” San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc Edouard-Vlasic said. ”The league has done everything in their power to make there more goals out there, and that’s exactly what’s going on.”

The uptick can be credited to a concerted crackdown on slashing by issuing more penalties and a league-wide move toward younger and more skilled players. The current pace of 6.01 goals per game would be the highest since 2005-06, when a series of rule changes were put in to open up the game and get more scoring to attract new fans.

”Teams try to go for it more,” said New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, whose goals-against average is 2.66, nearly 13 percent higher than it was at this point a year ago. ”Most teams are trying to go for it, have this fast hockey, leave the zone quickly and it opens it up.”

Deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly said general managers are pleased with the current pace, which has lasted beyond the typical high-scoring October as defenses settle in for the season. Stricter enforcement of slashing was designed to reduce hand and wrist injuries, though it has had a positive effect on offense with defenders unable to whack at puck carriers’ sticks in an effort to stop them.

”I do think that has created certainly more room for our players to be offensive,” Daly said. ”I think over time, clearly since we increased the standard for hooking and holding and interference (in 2005-06), slashing has become a way to defend and an effective way to defend, and I think this year it’s a less effective way to defend.”

Players have noticed, even if some are frustrated at the varying degrees of what rises to the level of a slashing penalty. Every referee is watching closely.

”The last five years, you could do so much more with your stick and probably now lots of players are afraid to use their sticks,” Los Angeles Kings forward Jussi Jokinen said. ”I think everybody wants to see more goals, so scoring being up, I think it’s good.”

Everyone except maybe the goaltenders may think so, but it’s not like they’ve been terrible. Four goalies who have played at least 20 games have a save percentage of .930 or higher.

”The goaltenders, they haven’t been any better than they are right now and some of them are still getting lit up pretty good,” said Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who has the league’s leading goal-scorer in Alex Ovechkin.

Certainly the emphasis on slashing has helped players such as Ovechkin, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and New York Islanders star John Tavares, who can do wonders with even a few extra inches of space. Columbus Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson, who scored 10 goals in his first 15 games, said slashing is on everyone’s mind and ”guys are not getting (their sticks) up into the hands as much as they used to.”

Slashing and otherwise, there have been 173 more power plays than last season and teams are converting on 19.7 percent of them. Almost half the league is at or above 20 percent. The massive increase in short-handed goals has a lot to do with aggressive penalty kills stocked with offensive-minded players more likely to score.

”That’s one more thing that the power play has to worry about,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”Now they don’t just have to worry about scoring goals. They have to worry about their turnovers, what plays they make, how risky they want to get because there is that chance if it goes the other way and it’s a 2-on-1, it could end up in the back of your net.”

Los Angeles coach John Stevens said teams are in ”attack mode” all the time now, and Trotz estimates that he spends three-quarters of time trying to figure out how to score more.

But risk is also inherent in the NHL getting younger and featuring so many rookie scorers such as Arizona’s Clayton Keller, Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat and Vancouver’s Brock Boeser. The average age of an NHL player is 27 and Daly said the number has dropped over the past several years. He said more scoring is a byproduct as junior hockey and college programs get better at making players NHL-ready sooner.

Team composition has also changed. There are fewer journeyman faceoff specialists and grinders, and more players kept for speed and skill.

”Just the mold of all teams is kind of changing: They’re going for smaller, skilled guys rather than guys who are two-way forwards and stuff like that,” said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who is all of 27. ”These young kids have unbelievable skill, too. It’s kind of crazy how much skill. They have things they grew up getting taught how to do those things, which we didn’t have access to when we were kids.”

For all the offense so far, there are those who don’t expect it to keep happening. Goals were up through October last season and the NHL finished averaging 5.54 per game. DeBoer said teams often tighten their systems and structure after Christmas, making it more difficult to score.

”I think it’s still early to say,” Blackhawks winger Richard Panik said. ”The game is going to get tighter. It always does before playoffs.”

The Buzzer: Spezza bounces back after healthy scratch; another injury for Predators

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Player Of The Night: Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars

On Monday night the Dallas Star made veteran forward Jason Spezza a healthy scratch as he was mired in a lengthy goal-scoring drought. The Stars wanted to see more from him, and they knew he could provide more.

When he stepped back into the lineup on Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings he did exactly that by scoring a pair of goals in the Stars’ 4-2 win.

Even though Spezza had been struggling to put points on the board he was still doing an excellent job when it came to driving possession and generating shots, as well as the fact the team was outscoring its opponents when he was on the ice. His ice-time has been cut significantly this season, but he was doing enough to suggest that it was only a matter of time until he got back into the goal column.

He snapped out of it in a big way on Tuesday.

Another big injury for Nashville

The Nashville Predators are already playing without two of their top forwards with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson sidelined.

They lost another one on Tuesday night in their 1-0 win over the Vegas Golden Knights when Ryan Johanson had to leave the game after taking a high hit from William Carrier.

Johanson left the game and did not return. There was no penalty called on the play.

Predators coach Peter Laviolette had no update on Johansen after the game and said they were given an explanation that it was a clean hit.

The Predators ended up winning the game 1-0 thanks to a goal from Kevin Fiala and 43 saves from Jusse Saros.

Highlight Of The Night

Not much in the way of highlight reel plays tonight, but here is a big goal from Vince Dunn to give the St. Louis Blues a 2-1 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Factoid Of The Night

A big milestone for New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist as he picks up his 20th win of the season.

Scores

New Jersey Devils 4, New York Islanders 1

New York Rangers 5, Philadelphia Flyers 1

Dallas Stars 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

St. Louis Blues 2, Toronto Maple Leafs 1

Nashville Predators 1, Vegas Golden Knights 0

San Jose Sharks 3, Arizona Coyotes 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Report: Blackhawks concerned Crawford could miss remainder of season

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Here is some less than encouraging news for the Chicago Blackhawks.

According to a report from Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun Times on Tuesday night, there is some growing concern within the Blackhawks organization that starting goaltender Corey Crawford could miss the remainder of the season due to experiencing vertigo-like symptoms for the second time in his career.

Crawford has been sidelined since before Christmas due to an upper-body injury, but the team has been quiet on specifics other than to say publicly that they expect him to return this season.

Over the past few years Crawford has become one of the NHL’s top goalies and when he has been on the ice this season has been absolutely stellar for the Blackhawks. Given the current state of their defense and the rate that they give up shots he has become one of the team’s most important players and the one that seems to drive their success more than any other.

[Related: Corey Crawford has become the Blackhawks’ most important player]

In his absence the team has leaned on Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass. Both have played about as well as could have been expected, but they aren’t Crawford and there is a noticeable drop in play at the position when he is not in there.

In 26 games this season Crawford is 16-9-2 with a .929 save percentage.

As of Tuesday night the Blackhawks are on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture, sitting three points back of the Minnesota Wild. They also have the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche sitting between them.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Rick Nash snaps out of slump, powers Rangers to huge win

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The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are two of the teams in the middle of the free-for-all that is the Eastern Conference playoff race that had five teams separated by just three points heading into Tuesday night.

Both teams had been rolling in opposite directions over the past week with the Flyers having won four in a row and five of their past six, while the Rangers were riding a three-game losing skid and had lost four out of five.

Their past two losses coming out of the bye week were especially ugly, losing to the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins (two other teams they are competing with) by a combined score of 12-4.

Both the Rangers’ and Flyers’ streaks came to an end in their game on Tuesday with the Rangers picking up a huge 5-1 win.

Rick Nash was the big star for the Rangers on Tuesday with a pair of goals, including a breakaway goal in the first period to tie the game at one after the Rangers gave up an early goal. It was a big performance for Nash because he had been mired in a brutal slump that had seen him go 12 consecutive games without a goal. He also had just one assist during that stretch. That slump has contributed to a down year offensively that has him on track for one of the least productive seasons of his career.

But he came through in a big way on Tuesday to help give the Rangers two huge points and move them three points ahead of the Flyers. The Flyers still have one game in hand while the two teams will still play three more games the rest of the season.

The Rangers’ win on Tuesday, combined with the Islanders’ 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils, moves the Rangers back into the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference for the time being.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Predators place forward Viktor Arvidsson on injured reserve

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Nashville Predators have placed forward Viktor Arvidsson on injured reserve with a lower-body injury and recalled forward Frederick Gaudreau from the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals.

The Predators made the move Tuesday afternoon.

Arvidsson was helped off the ice Monday during practice, and The Tennessean reports he tested himself during Tuesday morning’s skate.

The forward ranks third on the Predators with 13 goals and fourth with 27 points. The Predators already have Filip Forsberg on injured reserve with an upper-body injury.

Gaudreau has played 18 games with the Predators with three assists. He had 14 points in 21 games with the Admirals this season.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey