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Nearing the end of the fourth year in the NHL's so-called new era - with its emphasis on speed and skill - it looks as though the officiating standard has shifted slightly, with the referees permitting far more contact between players when they battle for the puck.

Not that anyone on either side is necessarily objecting to that development, but consider the numbers. Last year, in the first two games of the Pittsburgh Penguins-Detroit Red Wings' playoff series, a total of 22 minor penalties were called. This year? Only seven - and two came in the final 19 seconds of Sunday's 3-1 Detroit win after Penguins' star Evgeni Malkin started a fight with Henrik Zetterberg, but had no real impact on the outcome or the play.

Accordingly, special teams have had no meaningful role in the series, heading into last night's pivotal third game.

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For the final, the NHL opted to deploy two veterans - Paul Devorski and Bill McCreary - and two relative youngsters, Dennis LaRue and Marc Joanette - as their referees and they have done what Don Cherry and other traditionalists want them to do, swallow their whistles and call only the most egregious offences.

Devorski and LaRue had the call last night.

The Red Wings' Kirk Maltby, a survivor of the NHL's obstruction era, is all in favour of the way the games are being called and believes a nice balance is being struck.

"I think they are letting a few things go that maybe were called during the regular season, but I like it this way," Maltby said. "This allows a lot more battles. You can see it out there. Guys are able to fight for the puck.

"As a player, a fan or a coach, all you ask is that it's called equally both ways, and I think they've done a great job of that. It's fun. It's not back to what it was in the eighties or seventies, but it's nice that you can go in and guys are fighting for the puck, or you're in front of the net, and there are some battles. That's the way it should be at this time of year."

The Red Wings led the NHL this season on the power play, scoring a league-high 90 goals on 353 tries, for a 25.5-per-cent efficiency rating. Pittsburgh, despite its massive skill level, struggled and came in only at No.20 (62-for-360, or a 17.2-per-cent success rate), partly because it was missing its power-play quarterback, Sergei Gonchar, for much of the regular season.

Statistically, the Red Wings' penalty kill was decidedly mediocre in the regular season, finishing only 25th overall. At one stage in these playoffs, they surrendered a power-play goal in 12 consecutive games. In theory, both teams have a high-enough skill level that they could pump up the offence in this series - only four goals in each of the first two games - provided they had more time with the man advantage.

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"I think the standard that has been called has been fair," Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said.

"As a coach, you can go through the game and say, that was a penalty, that wasn't a penalty, but if you're honest, you can usually say that about both sides.

"I think the standard on the ice has been pretty consistent for both teams."

Through two games, Pittsburgh was 1-for-3 with the man advantage, Detroit 0-for-4.

"It's nice to see the players be able to play, but there are also rules in place that aren't being enforced at the same time," said Red Wings' assistant coach Paul MacLean. "The battle for the puck is one thing, but not being allowed to skate - things that have made the game better in the last four years - I think that has to remain the standard.

"In these two games, there have been four power plays [five actually] I would say the standard has slipped a little, but neither team is known for taking penalties. They're probably the two least-penalized teams in the league, so it's not a surprise that power plays are down. But one in each game is a little surprising."

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To Brad McCrimmon, another Red Wings' assistant, who was an elite defensive defenceman in his era, the most important thing is "a level of consistency within the game. Whatever rulebook is employed that evening, I don't really care, as long as it's consistent for the night."

When asked about the minimal number of power-play calls in the series, Penguins' left winger Chris Kunitz laughed and remarked: "It's nothing you can control. The game is officiated how it is. You just have to go out and play the game.

"I mean, everybody obviously likes to go out on the power play. It greatly increases your chances of scoring goals. We definitely need to get more pucks past [goaltender Chris]Osgood, but it's just the way the series is.

"It's tight checking. It's hard fought. Every time you're on the ice, you have a chance to finish a check, or get checked, so you just have to go out and play your game, keep your feet moving, go to the net - and maybe you'll draw more penalties."

Coming out of the lockout, the NHL focused mainly on eliminating the neutral-zone hooking, holding and interference that slowed the game down. That, and the move to drop the centre red line for purposes of offside calls, has kept the speed in the game, Maltby believes.

"In the old days, you'd have guys that [would use their sticks to]slingshot and whatnot," Maltby said. "I don't think any of that stuff is going on. I don't think of the stuff that was going on before the rules changed - or anything dramatic like that - is happening. I just think they're allowing guys to fight for pucks and fight for position and keeping things within reason. I think, in both games, the referees have done a great job with that."

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More


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