SPORTS

Goal-scoring is down but entertainment value still high in NHL playoffs

05/14/2015 01:23 EDT | Updated 05/14/2016 05:59 EDT
The 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs may become better known as the 2-1 playoffs.

Over a quarter of games have been decided by that score as part of the lowest-scoring NHL post-season since 2012.

But while scoring is down, drama isn't. More than half of the games through two rounds were decided by one goal, and 15 went to overtime.

"When you get to the heightened intensity and how you're hanging on every play of every single game in the playoffs, a 2-1 game becomes pretty darn exciting," Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "That probably masks a little bit of not so many goals being scored because it's the win-at-all-costs type of atmosphere and I don't think people care as much about the score."

Goals are being scored at a rate of 4.88 a game, down half a goal from the regular season and the lowest in the playoffs since 4.84 three years ago. That's thanks in part to bigger and better goaltenders, more advanced coaching systems, a ton of shot-blocking and even just a difference in mentality for players.

Among the four teams left, only the Chicago Blackhawks, who split goaltending time in the first round between Corey Crawford and Scott Darling, have allowed more than two goals a game. Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers, Frederik Andersen and the Anaheim Ducks and Ben Bishop and the Tampa Bay Lightning are all at a 2.00 goals-against average or below.

Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau pointed to the first period of Game 6 between the Rangers and Washington Capitals on Sunday as an example of how good the hockey has been with the goaltending a notch above. The Rangers and Capitals combined for 37 shots in the opening 20 minutes and just two goals as Lundqvist and Braden Holtby were brilliant.

"The goaltending has been just out of this world and if you look at the names that are goaltending for each series, they're pretty big names," said Boudreau, whose Ducks have a playoff-best 35 goals. "That's why I think the goal-scoring is down."

The size of goaltenders is up. Among the 26 goalies to make an appearance in these playoffs, only Jaroslav Halak of the New York Islanders is under six foot one.

"The day and age of the small goaltender is done," NHL executive vice-president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell said. "Ben Bishop is 6-7, Frederik Andersen is 6-3. Big goalies, they fill the net, but also with big equipment and it's hard because with big equipment they play a certain style that they need protection on the inside of their pads."

Bigger butterfly goaltenders need more padding than their predecessors, and the league has taken steps in recent years to shrink the equipment enough to try to increase scoring. Goalies also have better technique, coaching and training now.

But often the puck doesn't get to the net because of the emphasis on blocking shots. It's part of playoff culture to sacrifice the body, and 34.8 per cent of shot attempts through 69 games were blocked.

That's the coaching philosophy, too. Campbell has always said adding a coach like Ken Hitchcock can make a team better within a couple of weeks because it's easier to lock-down defensively and negate talent than it is to teach offence.

"We once said if we wanted to increase goal-scoring, we needed worse goalies and worse players," Campbell said. "Players are getting better, the coaching is better, preparation is better. It's easier to prevent goals than it is to produce and manufacture goals."

Some of that, Cooper believes, is on players who might take an extra chance or make an extra move at the blue-line in the regular season to create a scoring chance. Not in the playoffs, where they'll chip it in and make opponents go 200 feet to score.

"For 82 games in the regular season, everybody's trying to score, and as soon as the playoffs start, everybody's trying to prevent goals," Cooper said. "There's such a commitment to play defence now and not as much a commitment to score because teams know you just really need to get one, maybe even two, and there's a really good possibility you're going to win the game."

In 21 games so far, a goal or two was enough to win. That was often the case in the so-called "Dead Puck Era" in the 1990s until the 2004-05 lockout, when hooking and holding was the norm and the trap was a way to win games.

The hockey is more exciting now than it was then, but there are traces of that in the playoffs because of a lack of penalties and more obstruction.

"I was watching the 1992 Stanley Cup playoffs on TV and it feels like that's the rules we're playing with here a bit," Montreal Canadiens forward Dale Weise said during the second round. "You go to the front of the net, it's really hard to get your stick on anything. Call it legal interference."

— With files from Bill Beacon in Montreal.

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