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NHL GOALS OF THE YEAR

Anaheim Ducks

Cam Fowler
Ryan Getzlaf
Brandon Montour
Corey Perry
Rickard Rakell

Arizona Coyotes

Lawson Crouse
Anthony DeAngelo
Christian Fischer
Jamie McGinn

Boston Bruins

Noel Acciari
Sean Kuraly
Dominic Moore
Riley Nash
David Pastrnak

Buffalo Sabres

Justin Bailey
William Carrier
Tyler Ennis
Brian Gionta

Calgary Flames

Mikael Backlund
Johnny Gaudreau
Sean Monahan
Matthew Tkachuk

Carolina Hurricanes

Sebastian Aho
Justin Faulk
Lee Stempniak
Valentin Zykov

Chicago Blackhawks

Ryan Hartman
John Hayden
Patrick Kane
Michal Kempny
Artemi Panarin
Richard Panik
Jonathan Toews

Colorado Avalanche

J.T. Compher
Tyson Jost
Nathan MacKinnon

Columbus Blue Jackets

Cam Atkinson
Markus Hannikainen
Scott Harrington

Dallas Stars

Jamie Benn
Patrick Eaves
Remi Elie
Julius Honka
Antoine Roussel
Tyler Seguin

Detroit Red Wings

Andreas Athanasiou
Danny Dekeyser
Tomas Nosek
Riley Sheahan
Tomas Tatar
Henrik Zetterberg

Edmonton Oilers

Matt Benning
David Desharnais
Leon Draisaitl
Zack Kassian
Jujar Khaira
Oscar Klefbom
Patrick Maroon

Florida Panthers

Aaron Ekblad
Aleksandr Barkov
Jonathan Huberdeau
Jaromir Jagr
Michael Sgarbossa
Shawn Thornton

Los Angeles Kings

Dustin Brown
Kevin Gravel
Adrian Kempe
Tyler Toffoli

Minnesota Wild

Mikael Granlund
Erik Haula
Mikko Koivu
Zach Parise
Jared Spurgeon
Ryan Suter
Jason Zucker

Montreal Canadiens

Paul Byron
Phillip Danault
Brendan Gallagher
Max Pacioretty
Alexander Radulov
Nikita Scherbak

Nashville Predators

Viktor Arvidsson
Ryan Ellis
Mike Fisher
Filip Forsberg
Frederick Gaudreau
Calle Jarnkrok
Roman Josi
James Neal
Austin Watson

New Jersey Devils

Blake Coleman
Taylor Hall
Seth Hegelson
John Quenneville
Steven Santini

New York Islanders

Josh Bailey
Anthony Beauvillier
Cal Clutterbuck
Josh Ho-Sang
John Tavares

New York Rangers

Pavel Buchnevich
Michael Grabner
Chris Kreider
Ryan McDonagh
Brady Skjei
Derek Stepan
Jimmy Vesey

Ottawa Senators

Derick Brassard
Mike Hoffman
Erik Karlsson
Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Dion Phaneuf
Bobby Ryan
Kyle Turris

Philadelphia Flyers

Ivan Provorov
Wayne Simmonds
Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal

Pittsburgh Penguins

Josh Archibald
Sidney Crosby
Matt Cullen
Patric Hornqvist
Chris Kunitz
Evgeni Malkin
Carter Rowney
Justin Schultz
Conor Sheary

San Jose Sharks

Mikkel Boedker
Patrick Marleau
Daniel O’Regan
Joe Pavelski
Marcus Sorensen
Joel Ward

St. Louis Blues

Ivan Barbashev
Patrik Berglund
Colton Parayko
David Perron
Kevin Shattenkirk
Paul Stastny
Alexander Steen
Vladimir Tarasenko

Tampa Bay Lightning

Adam Erne
Yanni Gourde
Tyler Johnson
Nikita Kucherov
Matthew Peca

Toronto Maple Leafs

Tyler Bozak
Nazem Kadri
Kasperi Kapanen
Auston Matthews
William Nylander

Vancouver Canucks

Brock Boeser
Alexander Edler
Markus Granlund
Henrik Sedin
Brandon Sutter

Washington Capitals

Brett Connolly
Evgeny Kuznetsov
Matt Niskanen
Alex Ovechkin
Zach Sanford
Tom Wilson

Winnipeg Jets

Joel Armia
Dustin Byfuglien
Andrew Copp
Mathieu Perrault
Mark Scheifele
Drew Stafford

THE SEASON’S MOST INTRIGUING GOALS
ERIK HAULA, Wild
A SHARP-ANKLED GOAL

Among a goaltender’s primary responsibilities is being proficient at cutting down the angles of puck-carriers with a clear look at the net. Jaroslav Halak of the Islanders must have given some consideration following a 6-4 loss at Minnesota to cutting down ankles as well.

Of course, this was something that Bill Smith mastered during his Stanley Cup years between the pipes for New York, but the Wild’s Erik Haula was too far out of range for that nefarious goalie trick. And left to roam the ice freely, both of Haula’s ankles did in the Islanders on the winning goal.

Haula had none of this in mind. He was just an innocent bystander when Nino Niederreiter took aim at the net from the left faceoff circle. Haula’s objective was to approach the net for a possible rebound chance.

But on his way there, Niederreiter’s shot deflected first off his left ankle and then as he strode forth, the inside of the right one as well.

Halak, who was dropping to the ice for the original shot, had no chance as the double carom elevated the puck over his left shoulder and to the back of the net.

But you can bet that if this did happen in Bill Smith’s era, Haula would have put in for a healthy-scratch day the next time the two teams met.

Move to the 3:37 mark of this clip to see this crazy goal.

12/29/2016 vs. Islanders

The Hockey GoalDigger views every single goal from every single game. Enjoying such a visual bounty is never less than a pleasure. He has learned there is no such thing as an “ugly” goal. There are wacky goals, goals that are the result of pure grit, and efforts that should be hanging in the Louvre. All are a banquet for the GoalDigger’s eyes.

TYLER BOZAK, Maple Leafs
BUT CAN HE DO IT WITH A 9-IRON?

Hockey players — like golfers — like to showboat during downtime a little by using their stick blade to pop the puck up and down for as many reps as they can. But after Tyler Bozak’s exploits against the Lightning, the practice might become part of every team’s morning skate drills.

The play didn’t start out well for Bozak. He pretty much fanned on a rebound that awaited him on the door step following a Nikita Zaitsev shot from the point. But then he turned dross into gold.

With his flubbed shot still loitering in mid-air above the crease, Bozak stabbed at it with the back of his blade — and still failed to provide enough force to get the puck over the line. As the puck continued to hover over the blue paint, Bozak then flicked it with the front of the stick, and this time the puck actually made it not only into the goal, but all the way to the back of the net!

And perhaps the players who master the trick the quickest at practice in southern climes will be given an early pass to go out and show their golf partners their prowess in this suddenly useful bit of hotdogging.

12/29/16 vs. Tampa Bay

In this section we present those extra-special efforts or just plain bizarre episodes where the puck happens to go in the net. We start with the most recent goals of note and work our way backward to the start of the season. Included are all the categories that these goals qualify for as well as a little teaser hint to prepare you for what’s coming. Those goals labeled “Best in Show” are literally that – the best goals of a particular scoring classification.

VIKTOR ARVIDSSON, Predators
NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST

Viktor Arvidsson of the Predators is among the quickest and most elusive players in the league. He also, it turns out, has a great sense of direction.

Arvidsson employed that sixth sense against St. Louis on a rush at the tail end of a 4-on-4 situation when he executed a series of moves that resulted in one of the prettiest goals of the year.

Picking up the puck just over the center-ice line, Arvidsson had defenseman Jay Bouwmeister directly in his way and no support from any teammates.

Left to his own devices, Arvidsson avoided Bouwmeister’s poke check as he hit the top of the left circle by tapping the puck between his own legs without breaking stride.

This maneuver, however, left him at the bottom of the left circle — and on his backhand, to boot. Instead of flipping a low-percentage shot from this spot, Arvidsson dipped his right shoulder and chose the x-axis for the remainder of his skate, after initiating it on the y.

Veering right above the blue paint, Arvidsson came out on the other side of the crease with the puck now on his forehand. Like Bouwmeister before him, Blues goalie Jake Allen tried to prod the puck away from the Nashville trickster, and got similar results — except he couldn’t hold on to his stick.

The difficult part behind him, Arvidsson simply coasted until he saw a maximal opening in the net and with a swipe of the stick completed one of the most skillful rushes of the season.

12/30/2016 vs. St. Louis

So enjoy what you might have missed. And keep coming back each day for more of the most interesting goals scored during the NHL season.

THE SEASON’S MOST INTRIGUING GOALS

THE OVERTIME OVERTURE

It’s overtime! Too soon to break open the Buds? Not when they’re the “buds” it’s not. Pop a couple. Stick them in your ears. If you’re anything like me, you could last the entire 3-on-3 without a whistle on these. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing the league recognized iPods as legit performance enhancers!

This would be five minutes of uninterrupted madness. End-to-end. Sprawling poke checks. Then back on the skates for that overtime rarity: maniacal body checks. Headlong rushes whenever the puck was on my stick. If I put 10 shots on goal until one went in, that’s about what this anthem from Arcade Fire calls for. Doesn’t hurt that it was recorded not far from the Montreal Forum.

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EVERY NHL GOAL SCRUTINIZED, RANKED and CATALOGUED

PATRIC HORNQUVIST, PENGUINS — THE FLIP SIDE IS MUSIC TO PENGUINS NATION

PATRIC HORNQVIST, Pittsburgh
THE FLIP SIDE IS MUSIC TO PENGUINS NATION

Ignore what’s on the back side of that 45 at your own peril. Music fans and record collectors know this axiom well. But in Music City last night, Predators fans were reminded of this bedrock principle of the recording industry in the cruelest possible way when Patric Hornqvist used the backside of goaltender Pekka Rinne to bank in the only goal of the Cup-winning game with just a minute and a half remaining in the third period.

The tension cords connecting the 12 players on the ice were so tight that it felt inevitable that when one would snap it would be from a place no one was looking. And, of course, Rinne couldn’t have been.

The Penguins had established some frantic zone time and the Predators were running around, desperately trying to clear the puck out to the safety of center ice. Pittsburgh defenseman Justin Schultz obtained a parcel of free ice and sent a shot from the center point that went just wide of the net. Hornqvist, however, seemed to be anticipating the puck as it came off the boards and raced behind the end line to greet the carom.

Rinne couldn’t afford to devote full attention to him, however, for he didn’t know what dangers lurked out in front of the net. But this is the situation the crafty Hornqvist excels in. Training his eye on the airborne puck and seeing an opening between Rinne’s back and the open goal, Hornqvist immediately swatted the puck against Rinne, who was fully aware of what was happening but powerless to stop it. And the flip side was solid gold and Penguin black in Nashville.

There will probably be commentators who parachuted in for the playoffs or hosts on national radio shows that will either lament or complain that the Stanley Cup was decided on a fluke goal.

They couldn’t be more wrong. It was a well-earned and creative goal in every facet. The pressure Pittsburgh applied to retain possession in the Predators end led to Hornqvist establishing net-side presence. The shot by Schultz against the end boards was by design. The lanes to the goal were clogged and he devised his shot to reach Hornqvist indirectly. And in a game where anything the goalies could see they stopped, it was Hornqvist’s exceptional hand-eye coordination that allowed him to bat the puck out of the air and direct it exactly where he wanted to: Between the goaltender’s numbers.

And you have to turn the sweater over to find those numbers.

6/11/2017 vs. Nashville
June 12th, 2017|Categories: Goal Box|0 Comments

JUSTIN SCHULTZ, PENGUINS — BEST IN CLASS (SLAP SHOT)

JUSTIN SCHULTZ, Pittsburgh
BEST IN CLASS — SLAP SHOT

The Penguins, from the drop of the first puck, came out in Game 5 like a rocket from a bottle gone free. In the previous games, the slick ice surface has created fitful starts, with plenty of icings and conservative play. But Pittsburgh was determined to match its speed game to the pristine ice conditions immediately in hopes of catching the Predators unprepared.

Sidney Crosby, who we’ve seen use his bursts through the center of the ice judiciously in the first four games, took his first opportunity to exploit Nashville’s tentativeness and drew a holding penalty from Ryan Ellis 50 seconds into the game while still managing to clank a backhand off the post during an electrifying run through the Predators zone.

The Penguins power play, so diffident throughout the first four games, immediately displayed a new, bold face. A dozen passes must have preceded Justin Schultz’ one-timed bullet from the center point — and all of them looked as though they were practiced repeatedly during the two previous off days.

The zone entry was purposeful and for a change pushed the Nashville forwards back on their heels. And once inside, puck and legs were in constant motion as Pittsburgh worked to get Schultz an unimpeded shot.

40 seconds in, that opportunity came and Schultz delivered from long range, through the legs of both Austin Watson and goaltender Pekke Rinne. Fantastic shot, kept low and precisely targeted.

Schultz has had to take over the power play from the blue line with the midseason loss of Kris Letang. Though the Penguins power play has sputtered in this series, Schultz has provided three goals and four assists while Pittsburgh has had the man advantage throughout the playoffs.

His exclamation mark at the end of a beautiful sequence of passes to score the first goal of the game last night set the tone for an immaculate performance that he and his teammates would carry out for 60 minutes and grab the crucial fifth game, 6-0.

6/8/2017 vs. Nashville
June 9th, 2017|Categories: Goal Box|0 Comments

VIKTOR ARVIDSSON, PREDATORS — BEST IN CLASS (BREAKAWAY)

VIKTOR ARVIDSSON, Predators
BEST IN CLASS — BREAKAWAY

Viktor Arvidsson was one of the great stories of the regular season. After compiling eight goals in his first 62 games in the NHL, Arvidsson, a fourth-round draft pick, emerged this season as a symbol of the kinetically electric Nashville hockey scene, scoring 31 goals to tie for the team lead.

In spite of Arvidsson’s significant contribution to their success this year, the Predators have taken off on their playoff run without relying on him to fill up the net. Before last night, other than an empty-net goal, he had only scored once previously in the team’s 19 postseason games. And that was in Game 1 of the opening series against the Blackhawks, when he scored the only goal of the game.

Arvidsson, however, is among the postseason leaders in assists (6th) and plus minus (7th). So when he burst through the neutral zone ahead of two Pittsburgh defenders in hot pursuit of a diving headmanned pass by Mike Fisher, there was little reason to think another Predator would be better suited to finish the task.

With Nashville ahead 2-1, Arvidsson collected Neal’s headlong pass just as he hit the blue line. Though they were only a half stride behind, neither Patric Hornqvist or Justin Schultz would lay a mitt or the blade of a stick on the explosive Arvidsson. But, feeling their breath on him as though they were Subban on Crosby, Arvidsson elected to let fly with a snap shot as he hit the slot and flew the puck by goaltender Matt Murray on the glove side.

For Arvidsson, it was his first goal into a guarded net in 53 days. But the play up and down the Nashville lineup has been so exemplary that nobody was noticing his drought particularly. But the Penguins have to be most wary now that he has broken free of it.

6/5/2017 vs. Pittsburgh
June 6th, 2017|Categories: Goal Box|0 Comments

JAKE GUENTZEL, PENGUINS — BEST IN CLASS (SNAP SHOT)

JAKE GUENTZEL, Pittsburgh
BEST IN CLASS — SNAP SHOT

When Jake Guentzel recaptured the lead and scored the game-winning goal in Game 1 of the finals, two streaks came to an end. The first was the 8-game goalless streak for the playoffs’ leading scorer. The other was the Penguins failing to put a shot on goal for 37:09.

The clock had wound down to less than 3 1/2 minutes remaining in the third period and Pittsburgh had not recorded a shot on goal since Nick Bonino’s goal in the final minute of the first period. During that span the Predators had overcome a 3-0 deficit to tie the score.

Guentzel’s shot was worth a full bucket of them, though. Matt Cullen, standing on the blue line at the right wing boards, flipped the puck to Guentzel, who was already in flight coming through the neutral zone. Nashville, which had so effectively turned pucks over before the Penguins could penetrate their zone, had just Ryan Ellis back and Guentzel bore in on him.

Just as he hit the center of the right circle, Guentzel quickly released a snap shot that zipped past the leg of Ellis and over the shoulder of the butterflying Pekka Rinne. The Penguins then clamped down for the rest of the game with no scary moments in their own end. Nick Bonino salted the game away with a clever aerial flip from his end of the ice over the Predators defense and into an empty net.

Lost in all the tut-tutting about the historically low shot total for a Stanley Cup victor was the glass half-full scenario. Not even talking about winning the game. With 5 goals on 12 shots, Pittsburgh converted on 41.7% of their shots.

Has that ever been done?

5/29/2017 vs. Nashville
May 31st, 2017|Categories: Goal Box|0 Comments

FREDERICK GAUDREAU, PREDATORS — FIRST NHL GOAL

FREDERICK GAUDREAU, Predators
FIRST NHL GOAL

When Frederick Gaudreau celebrated with his teammates, his first NHL goal might well have been an afterthought — even for him.

Capping a comeback that was both improbable and probable, Gaudreau converted a pass from Austin Watson after racing into the slot and tied Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, 3-3, in the latter stages of the third period.

The improbability of the comeback derived from the Predators overcoming a 3-0 hole they sunk into in the final 20 seconds of the first period. The probability of the comeback stemmed from the fact that Nashville had held the Penguins without a shot ever since then, spanning the entire second period and what would, fatefully, become the first 16:42 of the third period.

So weird enough that Gaudreau’s first NHL goal came in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. But such distinctiveness was no match for the peculiarity swirling all around it.

Gaudreau, an undrafted French Canadian, appeared in nine games for the Predators during the regular season, debuting in the NHL at the age of 24. When Nashville lost two centermen at the end of the conference finals against Anaheim, he was called up as an emergency replacement. On his first shot in eight-plus playoff periods, Gaudreau bested Matt Murray with just six and a half minutes remaining in the third period.

Though the moment was Gaudreau’s, the exceptional poise and elusiveness of Austin Watson was responsible for all but the finishing touch.

Having just killed off a Penguins power play with no shots on their net (of course) the Predators immediately went back to work on offense, getting the puck deep in the Pittsburgh corner. […]

May 31st, 2017|Categories: Goal Box|0 Comments

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREDICTION: Penguins in 5

Not as anticlimactic as it might seem.

I can easily envision the total goals being close in spite of the lopsided Pittsburgh victory. The Predators are a Cinderella team, but the Penguins are not the team you want to be playing as the clock approaches midnight. They have demonstrated great will to get this far. Don’t forget, they alone had to deal with the other two top point-getters in the league this season in earlier rounds. And they proved quite resourceful in dispatching both. So don’t expect Pittsburgh to be at all soft because they’re “used to winning.”

Beyond the intangibles, the Penguins have adjusted to the loss of their most potent offensive defenseman, Kris Letang. Justin Schultz has filled in well quarterbacking the power play. Three times he’s scored from above the circles — and that allows Crosby, Malkin, Rust and Guentzel that extra bit of room to operate down low.

Matt Murray not only has the pedigree of a Stanley Cup behind him as a goaltender, he’s also exteremely sound positionally — an especially important attribute against the likes of Viktor Arvidsson, who loves to goad netminders with quick wraparound attempts. His exemplary rebound control might well prove decisive in this series with so much of Nashville’s offense being generated by their blue-line bombers Josi, Ellis and Subban.

Much of Nashville’s offensive thrust originates with quick transitions through the neutral zone. The Penguins did an excellent job of limiting Ottawa in the conference finals in this regard and will likely not expose themselves to too many odd-man rushes.

Still, the Predators have demonstrated quick-strike lethality throughout the spring. Without Ryan Johansen, this capability might not be as evident, but Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg are very clever with the puck and both are impact players.

But the Penguins roster is Cup-tested and Crosby and Malkin appear far from satiated with what they’ve accomplished to date in their careers. And with Phil Kessel they have the perfect wingman, both literally and figuratively, to provide scoring if Nashville attends to them excessively.

So, I think Pittsburgh is both loaded and hungry. And it’s Nashville that’s going to feel the effects the morning after the Stanley Cup is awarded to the Penguins.

 

 

May 29th, 2017|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments
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HOCKEY ON SPORTS TALK RADIO: Bring Something to the Table, Please!

I think this particular pet peeve started sometime around 1979. There was no such thing as sports radio — and I think that might have been the year of ESPN’s inception. There were, in fact, no national radio shows. Maybe Larry King was on in the wee hours. But otherwise, it was all local, with feeds at the top of the hour from CBS.

But CBS also furnished 2-3 minute sports briefs for the bottom of the hour to their stations. And these were hosted by Brent Musburger, who, on a daily basis, I came to see as more and more evil.

Even before there was someone named LeBron, the man would fill his time with the same old predictable NBA filler every day, completely ignoring hockey as though it were a willful exercise. I’m trying to remember if he even acknowledged the 1980 Olympic team. I do recall him treating the Stanley Cup Playoffs with as much regard as the national Badminton championships. Yes it was that maddening.

All these years later, the situation has not improved. Or at least in any substantive way. CBS still has a sizable footprint in the sports radio arena and its hosts still routinely jump through hoops — pun intended — to ignore the NHL.

On those rare occasions that your ears perk up when scanning the dial because you heard a word that makes you think that maybe — nah — whoa, maybe hockey is a topic of discussion, when you get a little excited that maybe the fix isn’t in anymore, inevitably the discussion tracks down the same dispiriting course: Hockey’s not very popular, hockey isn’t good for ratings on a national show, blah, blah, blah, gag, gag, gag.

The truth is probably somewhere in between that and the fact that the hosts are too lazy to educate themselves on one of the sports which sells out its buildings every bit as frequently as the NBA does. And after all — they’re paid to move their mouths in such a way that “LeBron” comes out as many times as it can between commercials.

So, little-by-little, through the years, I’ve tried to piece together why this abomination never changes.

My conclusions, while not exonerating the indolent radio personalities, also, I’m afraid, must lay a fair amount of blame at the feet of hockey fans.

Not only, it turns out, are all politics local. It’s inescapable that all hockey is too.

Now this might be a chicken or egg scenario. If the media covered the sport more actively, then the passive elements of the public would become more educated about it and gradually fold it into their sports-viewing habits.

It’s here, however, that I’m going to lay out numerous reasons why the NHL will never enjoy strong ratings. And they all have to do with how great the game is.

Unlike every other televised sport, you are not at liberty when watching a hockey game to divide your attention. In the other three majors, you can pretty much time your focus to match the action as it ramps up. Baseball — late innings, runners on. Football — the progression of a drive. Basketball — two minutes left in the game or less.

But hockey gives you decidedly less freedom to be casual with your viewing. Hell, sometimes you can’t even risk talking during the action or you’ll miss a phenomenal save or an odd-man rush. Both of which could have everything to do with the outcome of the game

This is not a kick back and veg out viewing experience. You need to time your bathroom breaks. If you’re going to cook dinner, you’d better make sure you get your food prep done between periods 1 and 2 and the oven is preheated by the time second intermission rolls around.

Already, by sheer virtue of this necessity to pay rapt attention, hockey has probably already lost 75% of its prospective audience. Hockey is intense to watch. It is most certainly not relaxing. At the end of a workday, only rabid sports fans are looking to ramp up the intensity in their lives.

Or the gamblers. And for bettor or worse, hockey is a game you don’t want to touch, given the fact that spreads are often decided by empty net goals. Very few feel confident about beating hockey lines, no matter how expert they might be as sports bettors.

So now the casual viewer and the betting public are eliminated from the field of potential viewers. In the world of sports audeinces this takes a big bite out of the whole pie.

But this leads us to the final piece of the puzzle, and it’s one that pains me greatly.

Going back to my earlier premise, hockey fans seem to abandon their sport in droves once their favorite team is eliminated. Does the interest in the sport for most of them derive solely from tribal impulses? Is the hate of all things not the home team so compulsive that engagement in the remaining playoff matches fails to excite?

It’s all mystifying to me. When the Islanders got eliminated on the last day of the season, I couldn’t wait for the playoffs to start, even without them. And here we are, just halfway through to the Cup and I feel — as I do every year — that I’ve witnessed the finest drama that sports can offer, and it happens unrelentingly, night after night. How is it that so few others get it?

There is likely a transition going on in the hockey world from one iteration of fans to the next. With the decision having been made that the embarrassing spectacle of brawls on the ice is not good for the long-term outlook of the sport, I sense many fans have lost their reason to watch games that don’t involve their own team. Their loss, obviously.

The shame of it is that precisely because of the great reduction in fighting, the games themselves have become far more highly-skilled athletic contests. Rosters are no longer populated by 15 guys who can fight if called upon and three who would rather not. And yet, precisely because of this emphasis on speed and conditioning, the violent aspects of the game itself have only intensified.

With the red line eliminated on off-sides plays, players are both flying around the ice with more abandon and getting knocked to it from more forceful collisions. So what’s been lost in flagrant brutality has largely been replaced by collisions occurring at far higher speeds than in football, with demolition-derby-like outcomes.

But the old-guard fan might never forgive the league for purging the gratuitous violence. And a sizable portion of the sports audience who always reviled the fighting might not even be aware that it’s been significantly reduced. Or for them, perhaps, one fight that isn’t immediately broken up is one too many. That’s the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t tightrope the league must walk.

One thing for certain, however, is the games are now captivating enough to sell the sport on its merits. Spending caps have led to parity and parity has led to close games. It was those 8-3 blowouts that were hard to watch once the outcome was not in doubt. And those fans needed fights to look forward to.

I’d like to conclude that the NHL is occupying some in-between phase, where those who were most attracted to the sport for the fighting are succumbing to attrition and fans of often whistle-free, breakneck competition are taking their place. But as with everything else about this amazingly complex, chaotic sport, it’s never that simple.

Pro sports are now personality driven like never before. Columnists actually bemoan the fact that more players aren’t like Bryce Harper. Virtue is out, controversy is in. Problem is, hockey players are a humble, team-oriented lot, where egotistic behavior is thoroughly discouraged in the locker room.

Watch a hockey bench after a big goal. These guys, aside from the emotion they all convey, always look for the nearest teammate to embrace. Does this happen in dugouts after big home runs? On courtside benches following a clutch shot? See the contrast?

So all the teeth-gnashing about hockey players having no personality is not right. They just don’t have loathsome personalities.

But there’s also an indigenous aspect of the game that prevents players from becoming easily recognizable. Not only are they on the ice for a minute or so at the most until they’re off the ice again, but their contributions are frequently undetectable.

Sidney Crosby can have a goal and two assists in the game and if the goal came on a redirect from the slot and the assists were on putbacks into the corner, you’ll have no recollection of seeing Sidney Crosby dominate the game, though he might well have.

Forget about how hard it is to follow the puck on TV for a moment. I think that’s a simplistic take on why hockey fails to get a big viewing audience. The real reason is that the superstars do not regularly make your eyes bulge out of your head, or at the very least don’t do things which are easily absorbed by simply following the puck around.

The game is too much of a Rube Goldberg contraption to instantly make sense to anyone but the most intent of viewers. Since the casual fan is never going to be able to recite back to you the last 20 seconds of action if you put him on the spot, the casual fan is never going to feel comfortable watching hockey. In the end, it really is that simple.

But for the rest of us, this is a golden age. Not just for the quality of the games and the intensity of seven weeks of playoff competition. But also for the outstanding, straightforward, often-witty and literate presentation of the telecasts. From the studio personalities to the exceptionally deep roster of play-by-play announcers and analysts, you never feel you’re being played. That a player is being overmarketed or is made out to be better than they really are. There is no effort to discover the next Derek Sanderson and foist him on you as the face of the league.

Oddly, though, there is an iconography that is unmatched by other sports. The Stanley Cup is only the most visible symbol of hockey’s distinctiveness from other sports. No less intrinsic is the handshake line, where — again — we’re reminded of the camaraderie underlying all the fury. And, of course, fans from Sunrise, Fl. to Vancouver, B.C. are equally ready to doff their caps and part with them in honor of anyone on the home team who scores three goals in a game.

It’s a beautiful pristine sport in that way. The fans bond with the players. And at the completion of the season, the players salute them right back.

And maybe — just maybe — some people just don’t like to get that close.