New rules bring much-needed excitement

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

As the first month of the National Hockey League season draws to a close, it's evident the new game is what the fans wanted.

Actually, in many ways, it's the old game rediscovered. The goalie pads are smaller now. The referees are less tolerant of interference and restraint. The tag-up rule is back. The goalies don't roam as much.

All of those circumstances were characteristics of an earlier era, and they've been brought back, to the betterment of today's game.

But it must also be said that some of the new rules are having effects that, in many cases, are less subtle and creating more clean-cut scoring chances.

Think of how many breakaways you've seen this season. Think of how many instances there have been of a player with a near breakaway and a defender frantically trying to angle him off.

THREE FACTORS

These situations are the result of a combination of three new factors -- the larger offensive zones, the crackdown on interference and the removal of the red line as a consideration in offside calls.

Because the zones are larger, the offensive players have more room to roam. But at the same time, the defensive players have a better opportunity to get into the open and start to head toward the other net should they sense a turnover.

It is at that point, of course, that the absence of the red line comes into play.

More and more, we're seeing players break out of the defensive zone when one of their teammates makes a high-percentage play on an attacking puck carrier.

If the anticipated turnover does materialize, the long pass, either up the middle or along the boards, can create a situation that, if not a breakaway, is close to it.

With the entire rink up to the far blue line being a legal passing zone, the game is open as never before.

Furthermore, in the past, if a defenceman saw a player trying to break out with the idea of receiving a pass, he'd slow him down, either with a stick between the legs or a bodycheck. Both were technically illegal, but they were rarely called.

In today's game, however, players can poach, and they do. The defenders have to try to skate with them and often, by the time the danger becomes obvious, it's too late.

Initially, it was feared by many the new rules wouldn't be able to compensate for the size of the ice surface.

"It's one thing to take out the red line in Europe," they said. "But it won't matter on the smaller NHL surfaces."

In fact, the smaller surface lends itself quite well to the creation of breakaways -- better than the European surface in fact.

In Europe, if you fire a pass up the boards to the far blue line, the attacker is so far from the net that, more often than not, the defender can cut him off.

A puck carrier can have a step on a defender, but he's more than seven feet wider than he would be in an NHL rink. Apply your high-school geometry. The defender has plenty of room to make up the step.

But in the NHL game, if a forward has a step on a defender at the blue line, he'll probably have most of that step by the time he gets into good shooting range.

The closer the breakaway pass is to the middle of the ice, the less chance the defender has of catching up. And in the narrower NHL rinks, you're never too far out.

Don't forget that all this is as new to the coaches and players as it is to the fans.

So far, we've seen lots of excitement, and a profusion of one-on-one plays.

As the year goes on and familiarity with the new circumstances increases, we should see even more.


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