They're bombarding the hockey nets

If you think the economy's inflated, take a look at the scoring in the National Hockey League this season. Through the first quarter of the schedule, the pace is up from 7.7 goals a game last year to 8.2 - fully a half a goal per game. It hasn't been so high since the center red line was introduced in 1943, before any of today's sharpshooters had laced on their first sets of double runners.

Some final scores are being mistaken for football results. A dozen times this fall a team scored in double figures.

Minnesota's 15-2 decimation of Winnipeg is the biggest runaway and, no, Winnipeg didn't score on a safety.

Why all the frenetic scoring?

I first asked Ron Andrews, the longtime statistician and pundit here at NHL headquarters. He was busy resharpening his pencils, but stopped to snap out a ready reply.

''With expansion, there's a shortage of experienced goalies and defensemen,'' he said, ''especially defensemen. You can take an 18-year-old forward, put him in the NHL, and he'll do well. You can't expect to do that with a young defenseman.

''The average age of defensemen in the league is down to 24, and many are younger. They haven't had the seasoning the fellows had in the old days when there were only six teams in the league rather than 21.

''And all the young defensemen nowadays come up wanting to be the next Bobby Orr, rushing the puck and scoring a lot of points. The thing they forget is that Orr could take care of himself defensively, too.

''I don't mind an 8-7 game myself. It's the 11-2 lopsider that bothers me.''

The worst victims, of course, are the poor goaltenders.

Tony Esposito of Chicago led the league with 15 shutouts in 1969-70. Last year, for the first time in his career, he did not manage a single shutout. Early this year he lost a 9-8 game to Toronto, not a particularly effective offensive team but one that repeatedly poured through the Black Hawk defense to rip pucks at Esposito.

''We're seeing much more wide-open hockey,'' he says. ''The kids are very goal-conscious, and they don't work on defense. They get drafted high with offensive statistics, and that's how they make big money. The defensemen are inexperienced, and the forwards haven't learned to backcheck.

''All this scoring isn't the answer, though. In the end, the teams with the best defense will win. The Islanders win because they know how to play defense.''

Says Rogie Vachon of Boston. ''The fans and the league want high scoring games. No one wins 2-1 or 1-0 anymore. You used to be able to win by making a half dozen good saves in a night. Now you have to make that many in one period.''

To their credit, today's skaters are bigger, faster, and better-conditioned than their predecessors. They also have quicker trigger fingers, seldom giving the goalies a chance to set themselves for a save.

''You used to be able to key on one or two big scorers,'' says ex-goaltender Glenn Hall. ''Now they're all scorers.''

Adds Vancouver coach Harry Neale, ''Most players have incentive clauses for points in their contracts, and the way it's going a lot of them will make their quotas by Christmas.''

This sentiment would seem to be borne out by the statistics kept of shots on goal. The shots are virtually the same today as they were 20 years ago.

Bobby Clarke of the Philadelphia Flyers, an old-fashioned two-way player, offers a radical suggestion.

''The game is changing so fast and scoring goals is so easy, we should be using a smaller net,'' he says in all seriousness. ''We've moved away from what I thought was the best hockey in the world - a combination of defensive ability, good hitting, and disciplined team play. The European influence is taking over, and we're seeing more of a free-flowing game with almost no hitting. The power plays are so strong, everybody's afraid of penalties. If the net were a few inches smaller, goals would mean something again.''

Thank you, Robert. Now if you would just give Mr. Reagan a call about this larger problem of the economy. . .

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