Score one for the new NHL

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

Slowly but surely, the National Hockey League's players appear to be getting accustomed to the game's new philosophy.

They're not fully there yet, and that's why the level of scoring has yet to rise appreciably.

In a performance that is fairly typical of the pre-season, the Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings hooked up in a 4-1 affair to close out the pre-season last night, with the Leafs getting the edge over the Wings for the second night in succession.

At the moment, dealing with the new rules is taking precedence over actually using the new rules, and as a result, the free-flowing game has not resulted in a scoring increase.

But more and more, the players are starting to feel comfortable with the new philosophy and they're starting to learn what they can do.

For one thing, they're going to the net more. In the old NHL, that area was sacred territory and trespassing was definitely a threat to good health.

But now, the larger players, like the Leafs' Nik Antropov, can plant themselves in that area and give the defenders a problem.

A defenceman still has the right to clear that area, but he's not allowed the leeway he had before. For those who may have forgotten, anything short of homicide was considered to be acceptable behaviour.

Over the course of the pre-season, the ground rules for conduct near the crease are gradually evolving.

Like the players, the officials have been climbing a learning curve. Early in the pre-season, some of them penalized all physical contact near the crease, but the supervisors explained to them that the game is still hockey.

A defender is free to put his stick on a player and push him away. But he can't whack him with the stick. In other words, a cross-check earns a penalty, but holding the stick in a cross-checking fashion and merely pushing does not.

The forward is, of course, free to hold his ground or even push back, so the physical nature of the game is still maintained, but in theory, there will be more scoring opportunities.

The next logical step in this progression calls for a team to put more shots on the net because the chances of corralling a rebound are better than they have been in years.

Similarly, some of the players are catching on to the fact that a wraparound is not a bad idea, even if a defender is close at hand. In previous years, that kind of play would be a good way to make sure the team dentist earned his keep.

But now, because the defenders have to keep their sticks off the attackers, it's easier for the puck carrier to walk out from behind the net.

To some degree, all of these tactics were in evidence last night. Antropov, standing in front of the net, got nailed with a shot, so there is still an inherent danger in hanging around near the crease.

But the Leafs continued to employ the tactic and, since it was effective, will probably increase its use.

Also, the players are learning how to defend without using their sticks. They can push, but they can't grab. Or, as Leafs broadcaster Joe Bowen put it after watching one example of the tactic, "Holding is out, but straight-arming is back in."

As the season progresses, the new style of play will become second nature to the players and they'll then be able to devote their attentions to becoming more creative.

They'll probably start to use the liberalized off-side rules to create more offensive pressure and the attackers will start to realize that they can use speed to take advantage of some defenders.

In the long run, it should work the way it's supposed to work. Scoring will go up.

But it will take at least a few more weeks.


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