NHL scoring may be dropping, but excitement is way up

Ken Campbell
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If current trends continue, NHL scoring will be lower this season than it has been since the Dead Puck Era prior to the 2004-05 lockout. That might explain why there have been so many shootouts this season, with the league on pace to break the record for the number of times it had to go to the skills contest.

Personally, I’m less concerned with a dip in scoring than I am with two other important factors – scoring chances and lead changes. As long as the latter two stay at a reasonable level, the entertainment value of the game is going to remain high. That’s why I’m not as concerned as a lot of people when I see that through Tuesday’s games, teams were scoring an average of 5.31 goals per game (not including the goal awarded for a shootout winner), which would be the lowest mark since 2003-04.

But to these eyes at least, there is absolutely no similarity between what we see on the ice today and the bad old days of the clutch and grab era. The game is infinitely faster, more exciting and more compelling than it was in those times and a look at the 12-game NHL docket on Tuesday night provides a ton of examples of that.

In seven games that night, teams were unable to lock down leads and either went down to defeat or had to win in extra time. What was even more compelling was that in four of those games, teams blew two-goal leads and in two more of them, three-goal leads went by the wayside. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams scoring the first goal of the game this season have a .772 points percentage, making that the highest mark in 60 years. The last time it was higher was in 1953-54, when teams scoring first had a points percentage of .776.

But on Tuesday night, the teams scoring first went 6-2-4, for a points percentage of .667. One of those teams was the Tampa Bay Lightning, who took a 3-0 lead on the Washington Capitals, only to see the Capitals roar back to tie the score on four goals by Alex Ovechkin before losing in a shootout. I’m not sure I would put a nickel on either one of these teams to get out of the first round of the playoffs playing the way they did Tuesday night – unless, of course, they played each other – but it was wildly entertaining to watch. After Ovechkin scored his fourth goal of the game, he broke out with the kind of celebration that has been lacking the past couple of seasons. Then in the shootout, Lightning rookie Nikita Kucherov had the stones to pull the Peter Forsberg move and he succeeded.

But the Capitals weren’t the only team to roar back from three goals down. The Carolina Hurricanes did the same thing to force overtime against the Edmonton Oilers. And the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders, two of the worst teams in the league this season, were down by two to the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks, not exactly soft touches, before coming back to win in shootouts.

Speaking of shootouts, there were four of them Tuesday night, which puts the league on pace to have a record 189 shootouts this season. That’s largely a function of the low scoring, but it’s also an antidote to it from an excitement standpoint. (Unless of course you abhor the shootout as many of you out there do. Point taken, by the way.)

But when you watch the hockey that was presented Tuesday night, there’s no way you can argue that it’s not the most exciting game on the planet.