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Dead Puck Mentality
Got the 90's on our Minds
2/21/18 - By Ryan Hall -

Another day, another series of comebacks. It's fair to say that leads have never been less safe in the NHL than they are today. Whether it's the New York Islanders scoring 4 goals on a PP in the last 5 minutes, only to choke up the lead themselves, before winning in overtime. Or else the Sharks both giving away leads (Las Vegas, Edmonton), and staging their own comebacks (Edmonton, Anaheim), locking down leads has suddenly become extremely difficult.

While this must bring joy to league officials, it's not necessarily playing as well in the local markets, where fans are far less forgiving of their individual teams' foibles. Sure, a comeback win is great, and adds to the belief that their club has that special spark that makes them better, different, and maybe even a Stanley Cup contender. However, a blown lead is still reason for a full-on meltdown, blaming the coach, goaltender, system, GM, owner, mascot, and perhaps even the Team President who allowed the game to be schedule at that particular moment in the day/evening.

Of course, all of this is part and parcel of being a sports fan, but in the NHL, I think it has roots reaching far deeper than most are willing to admit.

For most of the late 1990's and early 2000's, the league was mired in what has become known as the 'Dead Puck Era', a time when obstruction was rampant, the Neutral Zone trap was popular, and goal scoring dropped precipitously. During this era, 3rd period leads were pretty much guaranteed wins, as the number of tools available defenders ensured nothing too crazy would happen. Many of today's fans were weaned on that style of NHL hockey, and grew up believing that 2+ goal lead, especially in the 3rd period, should never, ever be surrendered.

That thinking has continued, even in an NHL that is as unrecognizable to the 'Dead Puck' era as it was to the 1980's. However, rather than adjust to the new paradigm, fans are still expecting their teams to perform the same way, not considering the circumstances have changed dramatically.

For example, today's league benefits from reduced expansion, which has only seen a single new team join the league in the last 18 years. The result is a talent pool that has grown deeper, meaning that 3rd and 4th liners in this NHL are far, far more skilled offensively than their counterparts from the mid-90's. Back then, if you gave the puck away to Kris Drapers (13 points) - 3rd liners on the Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings - he was less likely to hurt you that Nick Bonino (37 points) or Jack Guentzel (33 points) were on last years Penguins squad. When you add in that teams rarely carry a dedicated 'goon' anymore, it means that there is no player on the ice that isn't capable of scoring should the defense make a mistake.

Secondly, rule changes have altered the game. Crackdowns on obstruction and interference have opened skating lanes, and the removal of the Red Line has allowed players to attack from multiple points on the ice. The move to get head shots out of the game has made attacking players braver as well, leading to them cut across the blue line to create new pathways to the net; without the fear of a knockout shot by a defenseman.

Finally, removing the ability of goaltenders to play the puck outside their trapezoid has increased offensive zone time, and resulted in more scoring chances generated per game. Taken together, the difficultly of keeping pucks out of the net has increased exponentially from 20 years ago, and if further moves to reduce the size of goalie equipment continue offensive numbers will only trend upwards.

The continuation of a 'Dead Puck' fan mentality has been helped along by the Internet, which allows people to connect and mine mountains of data that previously would have been inaccessible to most. While this has been a good thing for the growth of the game, it's bred the idea that fans know more than coaches. Jump onto any team board and you'll see countless threads about how the local coach doesn't know how to create lines, or else praising said coach for finally clueing in to what the fans have known for weeks, months, or even years. Being able to criticize freely, claim mental superiority, and generally complain endlessly has only added to the hand wringing and angst of fanbases. Nothing is ever good enough. No triumph complete. Every failure is absolute, and an indictment of all people involved.

My point in all of this, is that we could all stand to remember that you win some, and you lose some. No team is as great as they appear after a comeback, nor are they are bad as we might fear when they blow a lead. Today's NHL is, at the very core, unpredictable, which is what makes it so compelling. In what other sport could an expansion team be leading a conference, or entire league?

So, let's put the 'Dead Puck' fan mentality to rest, sit back and enjoy the ride, and stop trying to make order out of the chaos. The fact that no game can ever be turned off, as no lead is safe, is something we should all celebrate, if not enjoy.

At least until the playoffs start.

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