Fewer shots hitting home, but goalies not whole story

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Everybody wants an edge.

Goals-against averages and goal totals appear to indicate that the edge is goaltending for at least half of the NHL's 26 teams. But is it?

Are the goaltenders brilliant? They certainly seem to be -- through Monday, 13 of them had GAAs below 2.00, including Boston rookie Blaine Lacher, who is 3-1 with an 0.98 GAA.

Or are the forwards just behind the curve? Certainly some of the biggest names are starting slowly: Chicago's Jeremy Roenick, Washington's Joe Juneau, Vancouver's Trevor Linden and New York's Brian Leetch have yet to score.

And goals per game around the league are down from 6.5 per game last year to 5.5 over the first 68 games this season. If this trend continues, offensive production will be the lowest since 1956-57, when the average number of goals per game was 5.4.

"I think it's a pretty fair statement that we're seeing playoff-style hockey in only our fifth game of the season," said San Jose general manager Dean Lombardi, whose Sharks are 4-1.

"I think you're seeing tight checking and, let's face it, checking is basically emotion and hard work and with the short season there is much more incentive right now," he added. "There are not a lot of quality chances being allowed, and when you combine that intensity with the continuing trend of excellent goaltending and the neutral-zone trap defense, you're going to see lower-scoring games."

The Sharks have been making the most of both edges. With Arturs Irbe in net, they have allowed just two goals per game for a total of 10, while picking the perfect spots to score their 14 goals.

"It's been like this," said Lombardi. "I don't know if it goes in cycles like baseball, where for 10 years no one can find a pitcher and then when they start finding pitching, no one can find a clean-up hitter.

"I don't believe that the goals-against numbers are down just because of trap defenses and rusty goal-scoring. I think it's a time in history when there are a lot of quality goaltenders out there."

Will the intensity drop off and goaltending wear thin? Will the forwards pick up the pace? Stay tuned.

Less for more

The NHL season is 36 games short of a full deck, but that hasn't stopped teams from charging big bucks to see hockey. A monthly sports business newsletter in Chicago, Team Marketing Report, has learned the NHL has the highest average ticket price among the top four team sports this season: $33.66.

The average NFL ticket costs $31.05, the average NBA ticket (1993-94) $27.12 and the average major-league baseball ticket $10.45.

"This is the first time we've included the NHL," said associate editor Sean Brenner. "We just gave in to the growing popularity of the sport. We felt there was a growing interest among hockey fans."

The St. Louis Blues have the highest-priced ticket average, $42.21 -- up 40.7 percent from last season.

The lowest-priced ticket belongs to the Tampa Bay Lightning, $19.84. The Lightning is the only NHL team with a ticket price average below $20, and it has more than 9,000 seats at $9.99 a game. But perhaps Tampa Bay can afford it. The ThunderDome seats more than 26,000.

Penguins soar

The Pittsburgh Penguins are playing without star Mario Lemieux, sidelined this season trying to heal his back, and No. 1 goaltender Tom Barrasso, who is recovering from wrist surgery and out until at least late March. But the team appears to be better than ever.

The Penguins need just two more victories to match the best start in club history, a 7-0 spree in 1986-87. Pittsburgh (5-0) and Quebec (5-0) remain the only unbeaten NHL teams.

"I don't know the answer," said Penguins general manager Craig Patrick, who is Washington Capitals president Dick Patrick's cousin. "It could be a lot of reasons. Maybe the team knowing it can't turn and hand the ball off to Mario sometime in the future affects their attitude a little bit. But I really don't know.

"I'm just happy with the way they're dealing with the odd set of circumstances this season; the short schedule, the short training camp. We're lucky that Luc Robitaille fit right in. He's so talented, and it encourages the others on the ice."

Patrick also pointed to goalie Ken Wregget (3.00 GAA), who stepped in for Barrasso, as a major asset.

Early popularity

The Capitals reflected the popularity trend in the NHL this week with 33,305 fans coming to USAir Arena for the home-opening weekend games with the New York Islanders and Penguins.

The crowds were a 12.2 percent increase over last season and were the largest crowds for the Caps' first two home games since 1990-91.

The NHL reports its 26 teams played to 90 percent capacity in its arenas, drawing 1,082,274 to its first 68 games (through Monday) for an average attendance of 15,916. The average game attendance last season was 14,749.

FAN COST INDEX

The 1994-95 average ticket prices in the NHL and the percentage of cost increase over last season:

Team .. .. .. 1994-95 .. Increase

Anaheim .. ... $33.22 .. ... 5.9%

Boston ... ... $40.84 .. .. 16.4%

Buffalo .. ... $37.04 .. .. 35.5%

Calgary .. ... $22.79 .. .. 18.6%

Chicago .. ... $39.84 .. ... 4.0%

Dallas ... ... $35.00 .. ... 3.1%

Detroit .. ... $32.61 .. ... 7.4%

Edmonton . ... $20.84 .. ... 5.7%

Florida .. ... $34.89 .. .. 23.1%

Hartford . ... $34.98 .. .. 23.1%

Los Angeles .. $37.00 .. ... 0.5%

Montreal . ... $28.20 .. ... 0.0%

New Jersey ... $36.22 .. .. 31.3%

Islanders . .. $40.20 .. .. 36.3%

Rangers ... .. $38.71 .. .. 14.7%

Ottawa . .. .. $36.83 .. ... 7.9%

Philadelphia . $36.28 .. .. 20.1%

Pittsburgh ... $40.37 .. ... 6.9%

Quebec . .. .. $31.71 .. .. 30.8%

St. Louis . .. $42.21 .. .. 40.7%

San Jose .. .. $36.24 .. ... 6.1%

Tampa Bay . .. $19.84 .. .. 10.6%

Toronto ... .. $35.55 .. .. 19.1%

Vancouver . .. $41.03 .. .. 43.3%

Washington ... $38.46 .. .. 24.7%

Winnipeg .. .. $22.35 .. .. 12.8%

Average ... .. $33.66 .. .. 13.6%

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