It's open season in NHL

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:54 PM ET

The people who should know can sense the shift, see it, feel it. "I felt it in the second and third periods (Saturday) night," said Senators centre Jason Spezza. "It opened up ... it was ... fun."

The NHL and fun have not often been mentioned in the same sentence for quite some time.

About as close as you got was when the NHL put the "fun" in dysfunctional over the last 16 months or so.

But take a look around now.

Not that higher-scoring games necessarily equate to more entertaining games, but there have been a couple of 7-6 scores the last couple of nights and they have been worth watching.

More importantly, teams have been coming back from two- and three-goal deficits in the early season, something that used to be about as rare as a good time in Hartford.

If a team had a lead going into the third period the last few years, you might as well have headed for Marshy's, or, if you were at home, flip it over to that popular NHL Network sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond Bourque.

With the referees upholding the new standards on hooking and clutching with the free hand, there is the hint of a change in the way coaches approach the game.

It's early, but we can only hope NHL coaches see merit in changing their thinking about protecting a lead. It used to be a two-goal lead in the NHL was as grim as a flat tire. Now, the ability to protect that lead has been compromised because apparently the NHL is serious about not allowing teams to impede opponents' fancy skaters.

For sure, teams aren't going to take foolish gambles when playing with the lead, but maybe, just maybe, it will now pay off for teams to consider scoring the next goal themselves rather than stopping the other guys.

Leading the way in the revised thinking, thankfully for everybody outside of South Florida, is Senators coach Bryan Murray.

It is summed up in his conversation with his players in the course of the Senators' 5-0 win over the Sabres on Saturday night.

The Senators entered the third period with a 2-0 lead. They pumped in three more.

Murray doesn't want his team to sit on a lead. He doesn't even want them to stand over it.

"You can't shut it down anymore," Murray said yesterday after putting his team through a practice in preparation for tonight's meeting with the Maple Leafs at the Corel Centre.

"We got ahead by a couple and my whole conversation with the players in the intermission was keep pressing. Go after their defence. Make it difficult for them to mount any type of a comeback. I think that's the new NHL. I don't think you are going to be able to sit back and line up three or four guys on a regular basis and expect to shut people down.

"Not being able to put a stick on a guy, not being able to hold him up if he's got speed going, is a tremendous difference in the game."

That can only be good for the fans.

Not that players like Spezza mind, either.

"In the past, we might have kept it at 2-0," he said. "We would try and trap them after they trapped us. Now we can open it up. We didn't talk about sitting back and not forechecking. We talked about going at them."

ALFIE A BIG FAN

Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson has seen what's going on. He's taken note of the comebacks.

"I don't think it's as rewarding to just sit back. It's harder now," he said. "When you're up by two, you should go get the third."

It's early, for sure. Maybe this is just wishful thinking, that a game doesn't have to be over with a one-goal lead and 20 minutes to go.

The whole thing hinges on the league remaining committed to the standard of officiating we've seen in the first few days of the season.

If there's any kind of regression, teams are going to find it easier to protect leads and this little light of optimism will be extinguished.

Here's hoping the league can keep it up ... If not, it's back to the reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond Bourque.

chris.stevenson@ott.sunpub.com 


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