Cheering the early returns

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:08 AM ET

It is a week into the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs and the last vestiges of skepticism about the quality of product that is being presented in the "new" NHL finally have melted away.

Most people have been sold on the kind of hockey they've been watching for many months, but there was plenty of anxiety in the run-up to the playoffs. There were legitimate fears that the officiating standards that have been enforced religiously all season, would somehow be undermined -- as they always had been --during the Stanley Cup tournament.

It hasn't happened.

And, given the stirring hockey we've witnessed, it's hard to imagine it ever happening again.

Sure, it's frustrating for coaches and players. Without hooking and holding and interference to dumb down the speed and talent, the game is being played at a lightning clip.

It has not taken the fans long to get used to the fact that their heroes are going to be either killing a penalty or working the power play about 35.5% of the time. That was the average all season.

Through seven nights (28 games) of playoff action, 35.8% of the game time has been spent with one team or the other on a power play.

Through Thursday's games, there had been 367 man-advantage situations that produced 71 goals. That's a ratio of about 19%, a tad more than the regular season success rate (or failure rate, depending on your point of view) of 17.7%.

Playoff hockey has always been played at an incredible level of intensity. One of the concerns this year was that, after a season of firewagon hockey, how would that playoff intensity manifest itself?

Well, one thing that is evident in the first-round games is that body contact definitely is back in vogue. During the regular season, there were many games that featured virtually no body-checking. During the past week, we've seen more checks thrown than at any time all season.

And, true to their word, the refs are not looking to take those good, clean knocks out of the game. They're looking for the guys who are trying to take the easy way out by hooking and holding.

We'll grant that some of the calls are still ticky-tacky, and that there have been a ton of phantom holds and hooks called.

But if that's what it takes to maintain the speed and skill to the current levels, then that's an acceptable by-product.

Right now, there's too much that's right going on in the NHL to nitpick.

When previously we saw playoff hockey two years ago, the 50 games played in the opening round produced an average of 4.3 goals per game. Through the first 28 games of this year's tournament, the teams have averaged 6.46 goals per game.

This has happened at little cost to the physical side of the game. In addition to the heavy hitting, there have even been a few fights, something that has traditionally disappeared come playoff time. Two years ago, there were two fights in the 50 games played in the first round. Already this year, there have been five fights.

It's hard to conjure up a reason for that. My own guess is that it is related to the fact that the rules protecting goalies from physical contact have been relaxed to the point that they've become targets. And there is no quicker way to find yourself in a fight than to run your opponent's goalie.

The Stanley Cup playoffs have always been terrific entertainment. The best hockey always gets played when it matters most, no matter what the rules of the day are.

Still, it has never mattered more for the NHL to produce a thrilling product than in this first post-lockout season.

So far, it has delivered.


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