BOSTON – It may just be that all of these slashing penalties and face-off violations will become a training camp fad of sorts and the preseason period of adjustment will give way to business as usual once the regular season opens.
The NHL can’t possibly hope to sell fans on games like the Bruins' 2-1 overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night at TD Garden that included 16 penalties and 12 power plays that completely marred the normal game flow. Some of it was about the seven slashing penalties handed out by the officiating crew and the ensuing special teams flow that never allowed either team to truly find their 5-on-5 footing.
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Even more prominent, however, is the frustration that many players from both teams are feeling for the strict enforcement of the face-off rules and the impact it’s having on the flow of the game. Brad Marchand called it “an absolute joke” a couple of days ago after watching the first night of preseason hockey. He doubled down on his criticism after watching it play out in a game.
He said it was so bad that players from both teams were laughing at the sheer absurdity of the standstill face-off posture and just how much it’s taking away from the enjoyment, whether it’s fans, the media or even the officials, of a free-flowing NHL game.
“It’s really taking a lot away from the game. You can’t have a winger taking all the face-offs. I mean if you look at the percentages of how many times guys got kicked out tonight, and what it’s taking away from the teams, it’s not worth what’s coming with it,” said Marchand. “Literally both teams were laughing out there about how bad the rule is. It’s becoming a big joke, so there’s got to be something tweaked with it.
“These games are painful. I thought it was a bad rule before I played, but it’s even worse after going through it and actually seeing what it’s like. It’s basically an automatic [face-off] win for the other team. The only thing you’re worried about is not moving before the puck is shot.”
The choppiness resulted in some pretty bad nights in the face-off circle for the Bruins. Ryan Spooner lost 9 of 10 draws and Riley Nash 12 of 19 face-offs while Claude Giroux somehow won 20 of 25 draws despite the difficulty all around him. While Patrice Bergeron was a solidly respectable 9 of 18 in the face-off circle for the evening, the four-time Selke Trophy made no bones wondering aloud what exactly is the point of all this.
Bergeron is rarely critical of anything despite his standing as a prominent, respected player in the league, but he seemed to take major umbrage with rules that are totally messing with his considerable face-off skills. The Bruins top face-off man likened it to Pee Wee hockey when he was 12 where everybody would just stand perfectly still in the face-off circle until the puck was dropped. That little tweak wrings every last bit of competitiveness and 1-on-1 battle out of the ultimate hockey showdown and has left Bergeron with a bad taste in his mouth.
“I think that the face-off is definitely an adjustment. I think that the face-off is a skill and you work your whole career to develop that and you work on your hand-eye and timing and everything and try to take that away. You have to adapt I guess. It’s something that I’ll definitely do, but I don’t think I’m a huge fan,” said Bergeron. “I wonder what they’re really trying to get out of it. I understand that it’s feet above those lines and sticks and whatnot. That being said it also kind of sucks. Hockey is a fast game and they’re really slowing it down.
“Faceoff is a skill and you work on timing, you work on hand-eye, and you know when the linesman is going to drop the puck. And I was thinking more about him kicking me out than dropping the puck. That’s what makes you second guess. It just makes you hesitate and everyone is just standing there. There’s no battle right now. It’s like face-offs when I was 12 years old. Everyone is just standing still and no one is really moving.”
In an interesting wrinkle to the face-off debate, Bruins forward David Backes is a member of the NHL Competition Committee that came up with the stricter enforcement.
“[Marchand] probably won’t like it, but I was on the competition committee that changed [the face-off enforcement]. I get to hear his gripes and it makes me chuckle a little bit. I think the intent was that all face-offs tended to be ‘scrum draws.’ It wasn’t win the draw. It was ‘don’t lose the draw’ and get the wingers in there, and everything looks like rugby where it’s bash each other together to figure it all out,” said Backes. “The intent was to have a cleanly won face-off whether it’s the second center in there that’s petrified to get a penalty, or it’s the first line center that’s got to be honest.
“The draws are won more cleanly [now] and you can watch it in the games. The puck is dropped and it’s not two guys colliding and banging heads like they’re football players. It’s certainly a skill that needs to be developed. [Bergeron] didn’t like it and he was 50 percent [in his first preseason game], but I bet you the next time he plays it will be 85 percent and it will be a great rule. Because he’s that good on draws and he’s smart enough, he’ll adjust. You’ve just got to be honest. We’ll all maybe have a hug, and life will go on.”
So, what’s the ultimate answer from an NHL that wasn’t tremendously forthcoming with these preseason tweaks and now has a stand-up, influential player like Bergeron kicking it around just like everybody else? It might be time for the league to revisit their face-off crackdown and perhaps get a little more advice from accomplished players like Bergeron for the next time around. But Bergeron, Marchand and others aren’t exactly holding their breath for any more changes. Instead, they simply hope that some of the referees apply a common-sense approach once the regular season begins.