Hidden behind the drama of baseball’s October classic and the full stride of the typically exciting football season, the start to the National Hockey League’s 2006-2007 season has officially begun. This year marks the second season under the “new” NHL, in which salary caps are enforced and new rules are in place to make the game faster and more exciting, in an attempt to bring fans back to the rink. The second season after the lockout year is proving to be more exciting than the first. Organizations were better prepared this off season and armed their team to the strengths of the new pace to the NHL. This, combined with an imposed salary cap, created more parity among the teams in the league. This resulted in a rise in competitiveness among the teams, which leads to closer, higher scoring, more exciting games.
This season is roughly two and a half weeks old and there have already been 22 overtimes in 90 games, 15 of which ended in shootouts. This is almost twice as many as this time last year. Though many hockey naturalists do not like the gimmick of a shootout to end a game, they are undoubtedly one of the most exciting events in sports.
The parity between teams mixed with the high speed pace of the new NHL has developed a very competitive product. Out of the 90 games played this season, 18 have had a lead change or a tie to send the game into overtime or give the team a comeback win in the third period. This makes a lead in the third period less secure and, because both teams better understand the game, offense takes over, making for thrilling, explosive conclusions.
With every team bound by a salary cap, the smaller market teams who have been cursed to losing in the past, have the same legitimacy to make a run for the Stanley cup as the big money teams. Teams like the Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks, and Atlanta Thrashers, who have been the doormats of the NHL for several years, are now not only ruling the NHL with wins but are playing extremely exciting hockey. For example, the usually offensively inept Chicago Blackhawks lead the NHL with an amazing average of 4.6 goals a game. Try to take a snack break during one of their games and you may miss one of their many goals.
Watching the rookies and sophomores develop is also exciting this season. Last season was the deepest rookie class in recent history, producing such talents as Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Dion Phaneuf, and recent Stanley Cup winning goalie, Cam Ward. These players light up the ice every time, and it is downright enjoyable to watch their creativity and skill take hockey into the next generation. Because these players are coming off outstanding rookie years, it will be remarkable to watch them use their new experience to take leadership roles within their teams, and build upon their already phenomenal careers.
With a quicker, more action packed game, and exciting young talent changing the face of hockey, the NHL is attempting to break the longtime label of it being only a niche sport — accepted in only certain parts of the country. Now if only fans from other sports could open their minds to this revamped game, it just might work.