At the start of the season, NHL officials said the league was serious about shortening games and, after about a month of play, it has done just that. The league's new hurry-up line-change rule has eliminated unnecessary down time during stoppages in play and trimmed 16 minutes off games on average, Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The NHL experimented with the idea at the minor league level several seasons ago and, after the measure was a success during the 2002 Winter Olympics, it was implemented for this season. Each team has a set time in which to get aligned for a faceoff and officials are instructed to drop the puck even if one of the centers has not arrived. That means there is less time for teams to stall, get an extra drink of water, hold brief meetings or hang out near the bench.
"It's not just the 16 trimmed off the end of the game," Bettman said. "This affects the entire game. There is more flow, less down time and the overall pace of the game is improved. We're very pleased with how it is working."
Coaches and players, who must stay focused during stoppages as they anticipate personnel changes and the drop of the puck, have welcomed the changes. These rules, coupled with the crackdown on obstruction and interference, have required adjustments and concentration from all involved, with few complaints.
"This keeps players that are negligent and complacent on their toes," Chicago Coach Brian Sutter said. "You can see immediately if they're not ready. It's great for the fans, great for the tempo of the game. As far as the hurry-up faceoff, I think it's tremendous. Coaches have to be sharp, the whole team has to be sharp."
There were several instances early in the season with teams getting caught with too many men on the ice and centers being caught off the faceoff dot when the puck was dropped, but that has decreased as the season has progressed. Players are getting a feel for what is required of them and adapting their routines.
"I don't even have to really think about it anymore," Washington center Robert Lang said. "You know where you have to be out there and really the only difference is a lot of the time, instead of directing traffic behind the [faceoff] circle, you have to just put your stick down and focus on the draw and not worry if the guys are in place.
"There's not as much standing around and it speeds up the game. I like that. I think we're better off not standing around and wasting two minutes. . . . This is easy and everybody is more involved now, even the guys who don't play as much."
The elimination of extraneous down time has required coaches to use more players and rely on role players, with stars already logging heavy minutes and unable to get breathers during a shift. Those top players also are vital on special teams, and the obstruction crackdown has resulted in slightly more power plays, and thus the need to spell those players at even strength -- again requiring depth.
"It forces you to use more of your bench," Capitals Coach Bruce Cassidy said. "From one night to the next you don't know how many whistles there are going to be. Some nights you could go five minutes without a whistle, so you have to be a better-conditioned team."
The shorter games mean players are home earlier and get more rest.
"If you're playing three games in four nights or back to back it gives you that extra 20 or 30 minutes of rest, which is important," Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig said. "It doesn't sound like it is, but it is. You get into a city a half-hour earlier, it makes a big difference."
Fans also applaud the move.
"I like it," Bob Smith said at a downtown sports bar. Smith is a Boston Bruins season ticket holder visiting Washington this week. "It needs to be similar to the NFL where people will know exactly how long a game is going to be. It seems to me the referees don't put up with as much."
The only people not raving about the changes might be found in marketing departments. Referees no longer are waiting for the endless scoreboard promotions to finish before dropping the puck, leaving some teams scrambling to complete trivia contests.
"I can't see who it hurts," Cassidy said. "Maybe the fans, between whistles watching the promotions and getting their flying hot dogs or whatever. But for the most part I think they came to see a hockey game and let's get on with it."
Special correspondent Christian Swezey contributed to this report.