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Goals Are Up, and Fans Are Watching

October 16, 2005|From Associated Press

Somewhere, Gary Bettman must be smiling.

Just over a week into the post-lockout world, goals are up and buildings have been full -- exactly the vision the NHL commissioner had after a year without hockey.

Through the first 40 games of the new season, played under a salary cap and featuring a host of new rules designed to increase offense, an average of 6.4 goals were scored per game -- a 41% rise over the 4.5 average registered through the same span of the 2003-04 season.

More skating room in the offensive zone has helped create scoring chances, leading to a 42% increase in even-strength goals. And teams are taking advantage of a multitude of penalty calls as the NHL tries to eliminate clutching and grabbing that slows would-be goal scorers.

Power-play tallies have risen by 40%.

In the first week alone, five teams overcame a two-goal deficit to win -- including Dallas' stirring opening-night comeback when the Stars erased Los Angeles' four-goal lead and won 5-4.

Philadelphia felt it, too, squandering a 3-1 lead in a 5-3 home loss to the New York Rangers.

"A two-goal lead at home in the old NHL was a pretty safe bet," Flyer captain Keith Primeau said. "With the new rules, you'd better get the third one."

And if there was a question whether hockey fans missed the game and would be willing to return following the yearlong lockout, so far that has been answered with a yes.

Of the 30 home openers, 25 teams reported sellouts -- with eight clubs listing their attendance over the announced building capacity.

The Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning said 22,120 tickets were sold for its 5-2 victory over Carolina in which a banner was raised to the rafters. That exceeded the listed capacity of 19,758 and was the NHL's largest opening crowd.

On the other side of the scale, the Chicago Blackhawks drew 16,533 to their 5-3 loss to Anaheim. That marked only an 80.7 percent capacity of the 20,500-seat United Center.

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After Roberto Luongo was chosen as this season's first NHL defensive player of the week, his good fortune took a negative turn.

The Florida Panther goalie was perfect in his first two starts of the season, posting shutouts Wednesday and Friday against Atlanta and Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay.

The Lightning rebounded the following night and handed Luongo and the Panthers their first goal against and their first loss with a 2-1 victory Saturday. But one goal allowed in three games was good enough for Luongo to skate away with the weekly honor.

Luongo was chosen early Monday, just before he started a road matinee at the New York Islanders. He was touched up for a first-period goal and then took a puck squarely in the mask. He was knocked down onto his stomach, but stood tall the rest of the way in Florida's 3-1 victory.

"This guy is probably one of the two best goaltenders in the league," said new Panther forward Joe Nieuwendyk, putting Luongo in a class with New Jersey's Martin Brodeur. "There is some good goaltending around the league, but I didn't realize how good Louie was until I got here.

"He's good in practice, too."

On Thursday, Luongo's face was spared but his goals-against average took a direct hit.

Luongo entered with a 3-1 mark, an 0.76 goals-against average and a .976 save percentage. He had stopped 122 of 125 shots, but that all changed at home against the Boston Bruins.

He allowed three goals on 15 shots and was pulled from the net trailing 3-0 just over 25 minutes in. Boston won, 5-2, and tagged Luongo with the loss just hours after the goalie was chosen to appear on the league's weekly conference call.

Is he looking for the NHL to honor someone else from now on?

"Not really," he said with a laugh.

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The St. Louis Blues might have a shootout specialist on their hands.

Rookie center Jay McClement became the fifth NHL player to score his first goal in the league on a penalty shot, scoring against Chicago's Nikolai Khabibulin in the Blues' 4-1 win Tuesday.

McClement could prove very useful to the Blues once they get to the shootout -- the NHL's new tiebreaker that uses a series of penalty shots to determine a victor.

With his winning goal, McClement joined Reggie Savage of the Washington Capitals (1992), Ilkka Sinisalo of the Philadelphia Flyers (1981), Phil Hoene of the Kings (1973) and Ralph Bowman of the St. Louis Eagles (1934) as the only players to score their first NHL goals via the one-on-one showdown.

But through Thursday's game, McClement hadn't had a chance to test out his skill with the game on the line. Of the first 65 NHL games over the initial nine days of the season, seven contests were decided by shootout. The Blues weren't involved in any.

Ottawa in the East and Nashville in the West took the most advantage, each going 2-0. Toronto got off to an 0-2 start in shootouts.

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Mike Modano doesn't have to think long to come up with differences between making a run at the Stanley Cup and shooting for an Olympic gold medal.

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