In this Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, photo, Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, center, loses the puck to Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Michael Grabner, right, after being hit by defenseman Dion Phaneuf during the first period of an NHL hockey game in
David Zalubowski

League-wide, penalties are down thanks to less fighting and players getting wise to how NHL refs call them.

December 23, 2015

DENVER (AP)— Matt Duchene preferred to bite his tongue on the topic of penalties and fewer whistles these days. His stitched-up lip spoke loudly, though, courtesy of a recent cross-check that didn’t result in a call or a power play.

“I have to be careful what I say here,” the Colorado Avalanche forward said. “But I’m very opinionated on it. ... I don’t know whether the standard has changed or not.”

League-wide, penalties have dramatically dipped from a decade ago. In 2005-06, there was an average of 11.7 power-play opportunities per game for both teams, according to STATS. Last season, it hovered at 6.1 and so far this year, the number is 6.3.

Less fighting is a reason, obviously. But so is this: Players have simply adjusted to the way officials call holding, hooking, slashing and other penalties. Consider this: The average margin of victory this season is 2.05, the third-lowest average in league history (figures don’t include games that went to a shootout or used to end in ties). It’s been a long time since games have been this close—1.92 in 1928-29 and 2.02 in `35-36.

So, yeah, careless penalties matter.

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“Players are real smart, especially hockey-wise, that if you continue to get called for hooking, holding and interference, after a while you don't play,” said Stephen Walkom, NHL director of officiating. “So you’re seeing the results of that—the players fearing the officials are going to call it and the coaches telling players they can’t take penalties because it will hurt them as a team. There’s a ton of conformance, which is great.”

The lack of power plays very well could be another reason scoring is down, from 6.05 goals per game in `05-06 to 5.25 so far this season. It’s the lowest total over the last decade, according to STATS.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword, because you want to be able to score more,” New Jersey coach John Hynes said. “But I think from the players’ perspective, too, when you get into those special teams games, a lot of times it disrupts the flow. Sometimes it’s nice, because you have scoring opportunities. But even for the fans, it’s not as uptempo or competitive at times.”

No surprise, roughing and fighting calls are down this season. So are elbowing, boarding and hitting-from-behind infractions from a year ago.

“The game is way safer, way more skilled and players conforming to the rules—or at least know where the line is like never before,” Walkom said.

However, tripping calls are on the rise in '15-16 in part because players are trying to keep their sticks closer to the ice to avoid hooking penalties—an interesting penalty and more difficult to discern.

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“What a hook was 11 years, three tugs, my grandmother could make those calls,” Walkom said. “I don’t mean any disrespect to my grandmother, but if I showed her a video, she’d be like, ‘That’s not fair.’ But in today’s game, where there’s a hook on the hands—happens really fast and takes away the shot—it’s as important as the big tug was 11 years ago. But those are even harder to see.”

Same goes with a slash. New York Islanders forward John Tavares has received his share of stick taps to the gloves as he flies into the zone.

“You can’t hook guys, you can’t grab guys, but a lot more small little chops, just on the hands,” Tavares said. “It affects players making plays. I’ve noticed that and it doesn’t get called quite as much, because they’re looking for the clutching and grabbing. It’s just players getting much better with the rules and at the same time making adjustments, finding ways they can be effective and disrupt players without taking penalties.”

As for players grousing over calls, well, that’s just part of the game.

“That’s the beauty of hockey, too, that any good player can be a great politician because they’re lobbying all night,” Walkom said. “Players know every inch (of ice) matters out there and every call matters. I don’t blame them. The game today isn’t like 10 years ago. And 10 years from now, it will be a different game, too.”

ROOKIE WALL

Sabres rookie forward Jack Eichel acknowledged he was looking forward to the team’s five-day Christmas break, especially after Buffalo completed a stretch of playing nine games in 16 days. After scoring nine goals and 14 points in his first 27 games, Eichel has just two assists in his past seven.

“Yeah, I need the break, just mentally and kind of gauge where I’m at as a player and where our team’s at,” said Eichel, the No. 2 player selected in the draft.

SLUMPING

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Anaheim's scoring woes are reflected in team captain Ryan Getzlaf's lack of production. Getzlaf entered Wednesday on a 15-game scoring drought and has scored just once—an empty-netter—in 29 games this season. Two years ago, the five-time 20-goal-scorer had 15 goals through his first 28 games. Anaheim ranks last in the NHL with 61 goals. The Ducks have been shut out seven times.

STREAKING

The Washington Capitals enter their break with six straight wins, and are 13-1-1 in their past 15. They’ve not lost consecutive games since last season, when they dropped two straight on March 11 and 13. In the meantime, Alex Ovechkin is eight goals shy of becoming the 43rd player—and first born in Russia—to score 500.

LEADERS

Points, Patrick Kane (Chicago), 50; Goals, Jamie Benn (Dallas), 22; Assists, Kane (Chicago), 29; Rookie goals, Dylan Larkin (Detroit), 13; Goals-against average (minimum 10 games), John Gibson (Anaheim), 1.87.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Western Conference-leading Dallas Stars meet the Central Division rival Blues twice: At St. Louis on Saturday, and at Dallas on Sunday.

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AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow contributed to this report.

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