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Ugly Way to Meet a Pretty Goal

Edmonton and Calgary were assessed 22 penalties in their exhibition opener. So were Phoenix and Minnesota in a 3-2 game in which every goal was scored on the power play. Phoenix’s second game, against Minnesota, featured 24 penalties.

Montreal and Atlanta were called for 32 penalties on Sunday, a day after the Kings and Mighty Ducks brought hockey back to Southern California with 36 penalties for 125 minutes. Each team had 11 power plays, which had to be pure coincidence. The notion that referees even up their calls was supposed to vanish this season, along with the hooking, holding and grabbing that had turned hockey into mud wrestling minus the good, clean fun.

“A whole year on the power play? This is what we’re going to get?” Duck goalie Ilya Bryzgalov said after the Kings had rallied for a 4-2 victory. “A goals-against average of 3.5, and that will be the leader.”

Craig Conroy, whose King debut was delayed a year by the lockout, said practice and a league-produced video hadn’t prepared him for the penalty parade. “It’s definitely going to be ugly for a little while,” he said, “but if they keep calling it, eventually, to win games, you gotta stay out of the box.”

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To King defenseman Aaron Miller, the result on Saturday was “brutal and ridiculous out there.... But if that’s what the league wants, that’s what they’ll get, and we’ll just try to do our best to adjust. You’d better have good special teams or you’re done for. And you’ve got to have speed in this new league that we’re playing in.”

The emphasis was Miller’s, and his skepticism is well founded.

The NHL has traveled this route before only to retreat around midseason, when general managers complained about the number of penalties. Remember, too, that these are lifetime habits that players must break, years of being told that if an opponent might beat you, it’s OK to grab his stick or arm or jersey and hang on.

“Especially in Canada, we’ve been learning that since we were 5 years old,” King center Derek Armstrong said last week, before he suffered a concussion in the team’s exhibition loss to San Jose on Sunday.

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“It’s going to be a big change for a lot of people. But if it betters the game, then the changes will be good.”

Think of it this way: There’s a red light at the end of the tunnel. But before 50-goal scorers lose their endangered-species status, the penalty list in game summaries will be as long as a Harry Potter novel.

Unless, of course, the league relaxes its vigilance. Or a coach decides that keeping his job is more important than keeping excitement in the game and finds the new equivalent of the neutral-zone trap.

On Saturday, the Kings and Ducks rarely took advantage of the new freedom to pass from the defensive blue line to the offensive blue line, again reflecting the hold of habits. When players become comfortable with trying breakout passes, there should be a payoff.

But will there?

Playing last season in Bolzano, Italy, where the red line is ignored for two-line passes, King center Eric Belanger found no scoring bonanza

“When we were leading a game, we’d just sit back, five guys at the red line,” he said. “It’s something I hope that we’re not going to see, because that’s one of the reasons that they changed all those rules, so we don’t see defensive play as much. Five guys standing at the red line is going to be boring again.”

It also seems hypocritical that while the NHL wants to promote scoring it also reconfigured the schedule to match each team against its division rivals eight times. That’s sure to ratchet up emotions and create work for tough guys; there’s a reason Darren McCarty and Michael Peca were among the first players to switch teams this summer -- McCarty from the Detroit Red Wings to the Calgary Flames and Peca from the New York Islanders to the Edmonton Oilers.

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The NHL is trying to please everybody, openly promoting speed and flow and tacitly approving the physical end of things by encouraging rivalries.

But there’s no denying that rivalry games quicken the pulse of players and fans. Owners too. Orange County technology mogul Henry Samueli, who in June purchased the Ducks with his wife, Susan, on Saturday wore a purple Duck jersey as he watched from a suite at Staples Center. It’s safe to say that’s not his usual business attire.

“This is wonderful,” he said, beaming like a kid with a new toy. “Having a rivalry is one of the greatest things in sports. Look at UCLA-USC, which I’ve lived. Since long before I was a freshman, I was a UCLA fan. It’s fun. If we can build a great, healthy rivalry between the Ducks and the Kings, that would be fantastic.

“And of course we’re going to win. Take that as a given.”

The Ducks are clearly aware of Jeremy Roenick’s ability to generate headlines for the Kings, and the Kings are aware that Duck General Manager Brian Burke is a media magnet in Canada and well-connected within the NHL. If the teams develop a rivalry in the best sense of the term and push each other to get better, rather than dragging each other into bloody brawls every game, the season could be interesting.

“For me, growing up, it was the Montreal Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques,” the Kings’ Belanger said. “That can be the same thing for us and the Ducks.”

Armstrong agreed. “Boston and the Yankees, all those rivalries, it’s a treat for fans,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s a Tuesday night in January and then you’re playing your rivals, and it makes a big difference.

“It just seems like the tempo picks up. Everybody battles a little bit harder. Fans from both buildings are there, so it’s pretty cool.”

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Samueli, who bought the Ducks before the new labor agreement was reached, said he liked the rule changes as much as the rivalry.

“Each day that goes by I’m more and more happy about it and convinced I made the right decision, Susan and I,” he said.

The NHL made the right decision in tightening its obstruction standards, painful though the stop-and-go-to-the-penalty-box rhythm is now.

“If we’re all on the same page from Day 1 until the last day of the season and the Stanley Cup finals, that’s going to be great for the fans,” Belanger said. “As long as it’s not, ‘OK, what are they going to call now?’ ”

The key is consistent enforcement. That call is up to the NHL, whose credibility rests on living up to its own standards.


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