NEWARK — Just before the Washington Capitals hit the Prudential Center ice Monday night for their preseason opener, Coach Barry Trotz told the team to expect a strict interpretation of the rule book. Veteran center Lars Eller said that past changes in officiating have been accompanied by video explanations from the league, but Trotz’s warning was all the Capitals got this time after referees briefed Trotz before the game.
The 60-minute exhibition that followed featured a combined 20 minor penalties for the Capitals and New Jersey Devils. While no rules have officially been changed, early preseason action has shown that the NHL is cracking down on slashing and faceoff violations. Consider the message received after Washington was called for five of those penalties in the exhibition game.
“There’s still a little bit of confusion on everybody’s side,” Eller said. “But you have these games to get these things nailed down and for the players to adjust. It is zero tolerance, and you know, we did that as the game went on.”
Said forward Alex Chiasson: “Obviously, they’re trying to implement some new rules. But for the first 10 minutes, it was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen.”
There’s been talk of being harder on slashing following several wrist, hand and finger injuries last season from dangerous stick work. “Now, as soon as your stick is off the ice and you touch the other players’ stick or hands, it was zero tolerance today,” Eller said. More surprising was the three faceoff violation penalties called in the first period of the game. That also represented a new emphasis from the league. “Cheating” on faceoffs has been commonplace, and for centers who’ve made their name winning faceoffs with a certain style and routine, staying perfectly within the red lines in the circle was an adjustment.
“Never before in the league have we not been able to have the blade touch the red paint,” Eller said. “That was like zero tolerance. Any part of the blade cannot touch the red, so that’s something completely new.”
Actually, it’s not. Allow Trotz, a member of the competition committee, to explain:
“The rule is not a new rule,” he said. “It’s supposed to be getting it to the standard it was when it was implemented, but that standard seems to have gotten real tight. … I think the whole intent is two things with the faceoff. The NHL always tries to make the game better for the fans and for the fan experience, so we want more goals and we want the pace of play to be quicker. Quickening the faceoff rule is one way. Spreading them apart a little bit in terms of the initial drop of the puck where everybody was in sort of a mosh pile, we’ve sort of spread that out. Players adjust and they’re smart. This league is the best league in the world. They’re smart and they’re going to adjust. That’s why the best time to enforce a lot of this is in the preseason.”
Players seemed to adjust to the stricter faceoff rule standards, and violations ceased after the first period. Unfortunately, setting an example in exhibition games can also be frustrating because many teams would rather evaluate their plays in five-on-five situations than special teams. The Capitals and Devils weren’t the only teams hearing whistles Monday night. The game between the Rangers and Islanders featured nine slashing calls, and Toronto’s game in Ottawa also had three faceoff violations in the first half of the game.
“We knew,” Maple Leafs Coach Mike Babcock told reporters. “I like what the linesmen did and the referees did. The referees came to us before the game and told us right away there were going to be penalties. That I thought was straightforward. Then the linesmen met us before the game, they told us what was going to happen and they came by and explained it, too.
“To me, this is going to get cleaned up fast. Because you’re not going to the box for that. You got to figure out a way not to go to the box. The rules are the rules.”
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