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Falling short on goals

The Lightning is coming off a shutout victory. The Whalers are coming off a shutout loss. So maybe the Ice Palace needs to hire only one goal judge for tonight's game between the Lightning and Whalers.

Shutouts and the words Lightning and Whalers aren't foreign company this season. We're talking about two of the three least potent teams in the Eastern Conference. Only the Washington Capitals (188 goals) have entered the red-light district less often than the Lightning (199) and Whalers (194) in the East.

Then again, this epidemic is not exclusive to Connecticut and Central Florida. Scoring is down across the NHL. The average goals per game is a measly 5.8. Compare that with the 1990-91 season, when the average game produced seven goals.

Unless the Avalanche, Penguins or Flyers can average nearly six goals over the final three weeks, no team will score 300 goals. Throw out the lockout-shortened season and you have to go back to 1969-70 to find such a campaign.

The NHL's shutout record of 99, set three years ago, was shattered more than a month ago.

Even the superstars have been stifled. A league full of stars such as Lemieux, Jagr, Messier, Lindros and Sakic can't boast of one 50-goal scorer with less than a month left in the season.

So what's the problem? Why is being a goal judge the easiest job in hockey these days? Why is the NHL starting to look more like professional soccer than professional hockey?

For answers, we go to the source. Here's a sampling of theories as provided by some members of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

EXPANSION: More teams, less talent. Over the past six seasons, the NHL has added five teams. That means approximately 100 players have a job they wouldn't have had six years ago.

But aren't there additional goalies, too?

"True, but you're adding 100 skaters and only five No. 1 goalies," goalie Daren Puppa said. "Those guys would've had jobs in the NHL regardless of expansion. They would've been at least backups and most teams play both goalies anyway. When I came into the league (in 1985), most teams had a three-goalie rotation. So there has never been a shortage of good goaltending."

So that leads us to...

BETTER GOALTENDING: Of course that's what Puppa would say. But he may have a point. Through the three-quarter mark this season, 42 goalies had a save percentage of 90 percent or higher. Compare that to five years ago, when five goalies had a save percentage that high.

"Goalies are simply better athletes than they used to be," Puppa said. "They are in better shape and the quality goes up every year."

Goaltending numbers are better, but some players point to the armor, not the man inside.

GOALTENDING EQUIPMENT: Compared with even 10 years ago, leg pads are bigger, gloves are bigger, face masks are better-designed.

"It's ridiculous now," Shawn Burr said. "You have guys with huge gloves and there's that little glove stitched to the top of the regular glove. Guys lift there arms and their uniforms drop under their arms. When they spread out, you can't even see the net."

The league did address the issue of big leg pads. Random checks make sure pads are not wider than 12 inches.

"Leg pads used to be big, but then the league made them small and now the goalies just move their legs that much quicker," Puppa said. "So they're saving more shots now anyway. Amazing how that works."

OBSTRUCTION: Otherwise known as clutch-and-grab hockey.

"You can't even move out there some nights because two guys are holding you, another's got his stick in your side and you don't even have the puck," Brian Bradley said.

IN-THE-CREASE RULE: The league's attempt to eliminate goaltender interference has become a nightmare for coaches, players and even the commissioner, who said the league will review the rule this summer. The current rule states that a goal shall not count if any player enters the goalie's crease before the puck.

"Seems like one goal a game is taken away by that rule," Burr said. "And most of the time, it's just because the tip of a guy's skate is in the crease. He isn't even close to interfering with the goalie."

These are the most popular theories, but there are others. Some players say creative play-making is thwarted by poor ice around the league. Others subscribe to fact that players are bigger, but the rink size has stayed the same. That means less room to make plays. And others believe teams pay more attention to defense because that's what wins championships.

"Maybe it's a combination of all these things, but I believe the league needs to study it," Burr said. "Fans want to see goals, they want to see offense. Action, that's what they want. They want to see players scoring goals and right now, that's not happening."