Sabres' head coach Ruff fears clutching back in fashion in the NHL

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"I don't think the game is being called as tight as it was," Ruff said Thursday. "Before, as soon as you put a stick on somebody it was a penalty.

"Now, you're getting a free tug at times. You're getting a free paw at times . . . I think there's games where the whistle has been put away."

If this keeps up, Ruff fears it will inhibit offence and cause the NHL to reduce the strides it made when the league emerged from its lockout 16 months ago by introducing offensive-friendly rules credited for opening up the once-stunted style of play.

Not so, said Stephen Walkom, the NHL's director of officiating, in response to Ruff's comments.

"There's been no backing off in that area," Walkom said. "There's been a conscious effort to make sure that we cement this standard this year.

"I can assure you we don't want clutch and grab hockey back in the National Hockey League."

Walkom said that while the number of penalties called are down from last year, that's more the result of referees reducing the number of incorrect calls they made.

"Just because a player goes down, doesn't mean he was tripped," Walkom said. "We certainly haven't been perfect, but I can assure you that our standard hasn't changed."

He noted that while obstruction-related penalties such as hooking might be down 13 per cent from last season, they're still being called at more than double the rate they were in 2003-04.

Some numbers support Ruff's contention that offence is down slightly across the league.

Through 699 games played as of Wednesday, teams have combined to score 4,159 goals. That's down by 205 from the same point last season. But it's still well ahead of the 3,456 goals scored through 699 games in 2003-04.

The debate over penalties comes as the league wraps up the first half of its season and prepares for its all-star game Wednesday in Dallas.

It's the NHL's first mid-season classic since 2004, and a game showcasing a group of young and talented stars - such as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin - who represent the future of new-look league.

The Ruff-coached Sabres are part of that transition. With a relatively small and fast-skating lineup, Buffalo has taken full advantage of the new rules by leading the league with 178 goals and tied with Anaheim with a league-leading 32 wins this season.

The Sabres have built on the momentum they established last year when they reached the East final before losing Game 7 to Carolina, the eventual Stanley Cup champion.

Ruff, selected coach of the East all-stars, stressed that he wasn't out to criticize officials, but did want his concerns known for the benefit of the game.

Ruff added that while he's noted a decrease in interference-related penalties being called, it's still nowhere near what players were allowed to get away with in the NHL's pre-lockout era.

"Gosh no," Ruff said.

That doesn't mean he's satisfied.

"The game has gotten some pretty good reviews for the fact that we got away from the obstruction, the hooking," Ruff said. "But at the same time, we're going to enter the second half of the year where everything means more.

"And we're going to wonder, 'Is a penalty a penalty still?"'

Yes, Walkom said.

"I understand his worry," Walkom said. "And you need to know that the worry he has now, it's been something we've monitored since the September of last year.

"It's that serious. There's that much on the line."



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