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A few less penalties and a few less goals but the NHL game is good

Through Monday night's games, 166 in total, compared to the same period last season, the NHL has had slightly fewer goals, power plays and fans - and a few more fights.

"I think the game is much better to watch than it was last year at the beginning," Buffalo Sabres centre Daniel Briere said Tuesday.

Players, coaches and referees alike were feeling their way through a crash course in the NHL's new rules last October, the biggest change being the league's crackdown on obstruction and interference.

This season's opening month wasn't so confusing.

Colin Campbell, the NHL's senior executive vice-president and director of hockey operations, says that's because officials were consistent right though the playoffs. Players have got the message.

"They've learned, they've accepted it and they know it," Campbell said.

Fewer penalties in the first month have meant fewer goals. Through Monday the NHL averaged 5.9 total goals per game (not including shootout winners), down from the 6.3 for the same period last fall. Power plays per game were down to 11.6 this year from 13.3 a game last season.

"I think the players are getting smarter," said Stephen Walkom, the NHL's director of officiating. "I think they understand what they can and they can't do. It doesn't mean it stops them from doing it, but I think for the most part they understand what is a penalty and what isn't a penalty."

Briere believes that explains why power plays are down. But he also thinks the hockey is great.

"More and more you're seeing end-to-end rushes, nice dipsy-doodles - that's what the fans want to see. . . . The players that are supposed to make the highlights are making the highlights," said Briere.

Overall, the league's average attendance is down 1.4 per cent to 16,582 in October from 16,809 during the same period last season. That's still up three per cent from the same period in 2003-04 (16,100).

High-flying Buffalo is up 41 per cent while defending champion Carolina is up 21 per cent.

But more teams are down.

St. Louis tops the list at 20 per cent lower. The other big drops are on Long Island (down 15 per cent), followed by Chicago and Atlanta (down 11 per cent) and Boston (down 10 per cent).

"I am a little worried about that," Briere said of the trouble spots. "You want to know why that is, because the game is so much more exciting. You're seeing all kinds of comeback wins.

"I don't think it's the product, it's got to be something else."

Blues president John Davidson notes that three of his team's six home games were opposite St. Louis Cardinals' playoff games - two at home.

"I also think what transpired here last year with the transition in ownership, and the year before that was the lockout, it all adds up into a grind," Davidson said. "But we're going to get there. There's a lot of positive things happening. People in town are talking about us. We've got a gritty club."

Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman, the NHL's all-time winningest coach, has also noticed the empty seats.

"October is a real difficult month in a lot of U.S. markets," Bowman said from Sarasota, Fla. "Because you've got baseball, college football, in some states high school football, they're huge. October is a bad barometer for attendance. There's about seven-eight teams that have been hurt by the calendar and playing quite a few games at home this month.

"I would be more disappointed if it was like this at the end of November or December."

Campbell says the fan feedback has been positive.

"At at the end of the day we're responsible to the people watching our product. I had people come up to me this summer and they said: 'I watched the final, I hadn't watched the final in years."'

Bowman probably watches more hockey than anyone and while he, too, has enjoyed the hockey so far this season (he gets a kick out of the shootouts), he feels fewer penalties could still be called.

"I like the games that don't have as many penalties," he said. "I don't like watching penalties all the time, like 25-30 minutes in a 60-minute game. ...

"The thing that I'm mostly concerned about is that sometimes there are little, inadvertent fouls, where the puck doesn't change possession, yet it's blown down because they don't have much leeway."

Walkom thinks the players tested the on-officials right off the bat this month to make sure the standard was the same as last year.

"I think we'll see it level out somewhat. I would think that you would see some drop, I don't know if you'll see a significant drop. It's all up to the players."

The league made few changes in the off-season, knowing the major overhaul of last year still needed time to be fully digested.

Here's a suggestion. Reduce the length of intermissions back to 15 minutes instead of the 17 minutes they're up to this season. That's a long time when games are also going to 120-second commercial timeouts - up from 100 last season.

Quicker games last year were a big hit with fans.

Off the ice, the NHL could reconsider awarding three points for a regulation-time victory, something that was on the radar after a GMs' meeting in Henderson, Nev., in February 2004 but somehow slipped through the cracks.

The Ottawa Senators earned 48 of their 52 wins in regulation time last season, while the Dallas Stars needed overtime or a shootout for 15 of their 53 wins, winning only 38 in regulation. Yet the two teams finished only one point apart in the standings, the Senators ahead by one.

It hardly seems fair given Ottawa's dominance in regulation.

"It's something we should probably talk about," agreed Campbell, who said it might either be brought up next week at the GMs' meeting in Toronto or at one in February.

The tough guys get the last word.

While the new NHL hasn't been kind to the slow and unskilled goons, fights numbered 147 in the first 166 games this season - up from 129 last season - .

That's still way down from the 247 fights during the same period in 2003-04.


(CP) - A look at some numbers one month into the NHL season compared to the same number of games a year ago when the league returned from the lockout:

2005-06 (through 166 games)

Goals per game (not including shootout winners): 6.3.

Power plays per game: 13.3.

Power-play goals: 397 (2.4 per game).

Short-handed goals: 35 (0.2 a game).

Even-strength goals: 619 (3.7 per game).

Fights: 129 (0.8 per game).

2006-07 (through 166 games)

Goals per game (not including shootout winners): 5.9.

Power plays per game: 11.6.

Power-play goals: 318 (1.9 per game).

Short-handed goals: 35 (0.2 per game).

Even-strength goals: 620 (3.7 per game).

Fights: 147 (0.9 per game).



2003-04 (through 166 games)

League average: 16,100.

2005-06 (through 166 games)

League average: 16,809.

2006-07 (through 166 games)

League average: 16,582, down 1.4 per cent from a year ago, up three per cent from same period in '03-04.

Biggest drops: St. Louis, down 20 per cent at 11,288 from same period last year; New York Islanders, down 15 per cent at 11,014; Chicago, down 11 per cent at 12,452; Atlanta, down 11 per cent at 14,408; Boston, down 10 per cent at 14,787.

Biggest gains: Buffalo, up 41 per cent at 18,690 from same period last year; Carolina, up 29 per cent at 17,782; Anaheim, up eight per cent at 14,358; Nashville, up four per cent at 15,098; Washington, up three per cent at 13,017.



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