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NHL falling back into a trap

It was nice while it lasted but it didn't last very long.

The National Hockey League is right back to its pre-lockout state, just one big slumber party.

Five games ended in shutouts on Monday alone. Nineteen of the league's 30 teams were averaging fewer than three goals when play concluded Wednesday.

This isn't the NHL. It's the English Premier League.

The upgraded style of play that resulted from the lockout has been victimized by strategy. Coaches adjusted to the rule changes intended to promote skill and skating. Defense reemerged as the great equalizer for offensively challenged franchises. Nowadays NHL players are always in the zone, be it a 2-3, a 1-4 or variations thereof. The game can't breathe.

"Zone defense right now, I would put it under the label of killing the game," Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Thursday. And he plays it.

"Under the top of the circle it's pretty well three forwards versus five defenders," Ruff said. "Around the league it's something that is very common. Ask all the top forwards. That's why they're struggling. There's a lot of good goal scorers with two, three, four goals. A lot of good players aren't ripping it up. The tendency seems to be going toward that again."

Who says winning's never boring? Minnesota is 9-4-2, Columbus 8-4-2. Both are averaging 2.7 goals. The New York Rangers are sitting at .500, having scored all of 31 times in 16 games. That's entertainment? No, that's how the under-skilled and less-talented survive.

"A lot of times you can't do it through scoring," Ruff said. "You have to do it through better defensive play. You can get by with average goaltending if you give up half as many chances as you did the previous year.

"I think coaches always look around at the better teams and how they got to where they were and why they're good defensively. And you see a lot of the same now. You're seeing a lot of people in the neutral zone. You're seeing teams will play a little bit of a European style with a 1-4, which takes a lot of the transition game out of most teams. A good number of teams now are playing the lock where there's three guys lined up. It's all defensive schemes that are allowed or effective that make it frustrating and it takes a little bit of that transition game right out of hockey again."

The league could outlaw zone defenses but . . .

"It would be tough to enforce," Ruff conceded. "It's something that we've talked about."

Enlarging the nets might result in a few more goals but would produce limited impact on play. The problem's not just the lack of scoring but the lack of skating, the dearth of open ice.

"You can see a lot of teams you think should be scoring aren't scoring," Ruff said, perhaps in reference to his own. "There's a lot of good teams that are having a tough time putting consistent numbers up. And the numbers are down. It speaks for itself. I think the goal scoring is around five right now (per game), which is down again from last year."

Scoring is down half-a-goal a game from last year. The number of games that have advanced to overtime has been reduced by almost one-third as teams throw up defensive curtains to protect third-period leads. The solutions put forth after the lockout have run their course. What's next?

"I've toyed with the idea that four on four would almost get rid of that," Ruff said. "The players don't want to hear that."

They better get used to it. The game has outgrown the playing surface. The options are to expand the ice or cut the playing ranks. Which is more feasible?


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