Clutch decisions

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 5:21 PM ET

A gallon of cod liver oil would go down smoother than some of the National Hockey League’s rule changes have this month.

But through the gritted teeth of players, coaches and managers, the new standards are being digested.

Aside from complaints from the usual suspects around the league, such as the Maple Leafs’ bench, most people are dealing with the short-term discomfort of penalties if it means a healthier game come Oct. 5.

High-tempo

One recent match between the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators was completed with just five obstruction-type penalties and was high-tempo from start to finish. Preds’ coach Barry Trotz praised his team for learning its lesson after getting burned earlier in September, but counterpart Mike Kitchen of the Blues wondered if his club had become overly cautious to the point of losing their competitive edge.

Coach Bryan Murray of the Senators has seen some goals knocked in on the second or third rebound with defencemen unsure where to draw the line on using their sticks and bodies to clear out the intruders.

The intent, of course, was to open up space for the skill players to showcase their wares, yet many nights the rink looks big only because of so many power plays.

Most pre-season games were averaging about 20 minors.

We’re not talking a 10-10 split, because the unwritten rule about even-up calls are being ignored, leading to long 5-on-3 power plays.

Skullduggery with the stick is at the top of the list as officiating boss Stephen Walkom’s officials make good on the vow to stop stick interference on the offensive players.

“It has been a huge adjustment,” referee Dave Jackson told Leafs TV recently. “They understand what they can get away with and what they can’t. The instant reaction is that they drop their sticks.”

For some scoring stars, it’s like being let out of prison.

“I was skeptical about it all going in, but the difference is night and day,” Mike Modano of the Dallas Stars said. “There was a lot more room to play in. If that’s the way they keep it, it’s great.”

But will the refs begin to slacken? It’s the question that won’t go away.

“We’re committed to this through April and June,” Jackson assured. “Players will adjust or they just won’t play.”

Many credit the two-man forecheck of the Tampa Bay Lightning for making the league realize the calibre of play that was possible.

John Tortorella, coach of the trap-busting 2004 Stanley Cup champs, looks forward to honest hockey among all 30 teams and beyond.

“The whole culture of our game has gone to rewarding the below-average player,” Tortorella said. “The mediocre player who can’t skate with the best player is allowed to cheat by impeding. The cheating has to come out of the game.”

But the opposition to zero-tolerance contact has been vociferous, too, as call after call brings so many stoppages in play.

After just one night under the new system, Boston Bruins’ president Harry Sinden had begun doubting the league’s own logic.

“They all talk about (improving) flow, these new guys on the owners’ board of directors,” Sinden said. “I asked them, ‘Do you know what you’re taking about? What do you mean when you say flow?’

“I said, ‘Can you think of anything that disturbs the flow of a game more than a two-minute penalty?’ ”

The Ottawa Senators’ defence corps spoke up on the weekend after confusion regarding the league edict.

Zdeno Chara, the club’s towering 6-foot-9 Norris Trophy runner-up, said a referee told him he was being called for being “too strong” in a game against Pittsburgh.

Chris Phillips went to the box in the same game for warding off Mario Lemieux with his hand, despite obeying the new law and never applying a grip.

“Am I supposed to roll out the red carpet for him?,” a peeved Phillips asked. “It seems you take one hand off your stick, a warning light goes off and they start looking to call a penalty.”

Chara wondered if the “history” of the game was being compromised by discouraging one-on-one battles in front of the net.

“You have to allow the defencemen to battle for position,” Murray said in support. “Any player who is strong or powerful should be allowed to play their position with authority. If someone goes to the front of the net and plants themselves and he has the strength to move him, he shouldn’t be called. In turn, if he doesn’t move his feet and he reaches with his stick, he should get two minutes.”

Though a long-time proponent of opening up the game, Toronto coach Pat Quinn’s veteran team seems more prone to running afoul of the regulations.

“A lot of people are trying to reinvent the wheel,” Quinn said of the changes.

Clubs such as the Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Philadelphia Flyers have a lot of stock in seeing the rules stick. If the Leafs can unleash big centres Mats Sundin, Eric Lindros and Jason Allison in the vicinity of the net, they could all have 25 to 30-goal seasons.

Working together

At least the teams and officials are trying to work together on this. Referees have made themselves available right through the game to clear up perceived grey areas and they are subject to review by their own supervisors.

“We want to protect the integrity of the game, make it better and see the best players get the chance to play,” Jackson said.

Opinion on the other rule changes is also mixed. The spate of breakaways that were forecast with the removal of the centre red line and shrinking of the neutral zone have not occurred, at least yet.

Some clubs, already forced into a defensive posture by killing so many penalties, have simply dropped back to prevent long bombs.

“I’m not a big fan of taking the red line out,” new Leafs’ defenceman Alexander Khavanov said. “I’ve seen a lot games played without it and I think all it does is eliminate the forecheck.

“In Europe, the Czech League made a wise decision, they actually put the red line back in for this year. Canadians have had a lot of success in the world championships because they have played with the red line. It’s a great advantage to be able to forecheck. You don’t want to see European hockey over here.”

If it’s hitting fans crave, Murray says the rule that prevents goalies from going into the corner to retrieve pucks will result in some dandy collisions as defencemen try and avoid forecheckers.

There’s even some uncertainty for the defence in ringing the pucks around the boards on clearing attempts, since there’s two less feet behind the net to get off a clear shot via the glass and boards. There’s also a new penalty if you rush your shot and it ends up high in the crowd.

Crafty goalies, often the target of the league’s crusade to increase scoring, have found their boundaries restricted, their equipment shrunk and their drooping sweaters about to be tailored and tied back.

“There’s some extra daylight to shoot for,” a hopeful Lindros said.

So far, shots on goal and scoring chances at even strength are up, but the game isn’t as wide open as first expected. More pucks are shaking loose from smaller gloves and pads, but the best goalies will still make saves.

The league has made unprecedented attempts to keep the media fully appraised of the changes, knowing that condemnation in the press for the lack of enforcing previous crackdowns sped up a return to the old ways.

“We’ve given up because of pressure; external or from ownership and management,” Murray said. “We gave in. I hope this time, in spite of what everybody believes, we should stick to it.

Tortorella agreed.

“People start writing and talking and yelling about all these penalties, (but) you’ve got to get on the other side of the mountain,” he said. “Sooner or later, everyone is going to adjust. And when we do, we’ll have a better game.”

That’s two minutes for ...

New infractions and changes to the rules that will land players in the penalty box or strip them of their hard-earned cash:

n Zero tolerance on interference, hooking and holding/obstruction. If you’re not using your stick to shoot or pass, don’t use it for anything else.

n Any player who shoots the puck directly over the glass in his defending zone will be penalized for delay of game. Previously only goalies got this penalty.

n A player who instigates a fight in the final five minutes of a game will receive a game misconduct and an automatic one-game suspension. The length of suspension would double for each additional incident.

n In addition, the player’s coach will be fined $10,000 US, a fine that would double for each such incident.

n The league will review and assess fines to players who dive, embellish a fall or a reaction, or who feign injury in an attempt to draw penalties.

n The first such incident will result in a warning letter; the second will result in a $1,000 fine; the third will result in a $2,000 fine; and the fourth incident will result in a one-game suspension.

Decrease in the crease

Changes to to the goaltending position:

n Goalie equipment has been reduced by approximately 11%. In addition to a one-inch reduction (to 11 inches) in the width of legpads, the blocking glove, upper-body protector, pants and jersey were also reduced in size.

n Penalties for goalies using oversizing equipment are: a two-game suspension, $25,000 USfine for the team and trainer gets fined $1,000.

n Goalies may play the puck behind the goal-line only in a trapezoid-shaped area defined by lines that begin six feet from either goal post and extend diagonally to points 28 feet apart at the end boards. They get a two-minute penalty for playing it outside of that area.


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