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Emphasis on offence turns into a nostalgic memory

It was the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Olympic Saddledome in Calgary and, ever helpful, the Calgary Flames' public-relations staff marked the occasion by passing out game sheets from the first game played in the building.

The visitors then were the much hated and greatly feared Edmonton Oilers, who included a 22-year-old Wayne Gretzky, a 22-year-old Mark Messier and half-dozen other current or future Hall Of Famers. Edmonton won 4-3 in a game that featured 72 shots on goal, 41 by Calgary, which was why Oilers goaltender Grant Fuhr was named the first star, despite surrendering three goals.

Fuhr needed to be spectacular to limit Calgary to three goals in an entertaining, wide-open, fight-filled game decided by Ken Linseman's third-period goal.

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Earlier, Gretzky had scored his seventh goal in Edmonton's fourth game during a season in which he would score 87 goals in 74 games. Jari Kurri and Glen Anderson each scored their fourth goals in a season in which they would score 52 and 54 goals, respectively.

The Oilers were on the cusp of greatness and the Flames not far behind. Those teams are a marked contrast to the middle-of-the-pack versions that Edmonton and Calgary have now become.

On Tuesday, Calgary beat Edmonton 1-0 behind the shutout goaltending of Jamie McLennan, the Flames' back-up netminder. McLennan faced 19 shots, including a stop on Edmonton's Raffi Torres, after he clanked a shot off the back of McLennan's pants, with McLennan turned the wrong way.

That was it.

The Oilers were shut out for the second game in a row, and afterward, defenceman Eric Brewer acknowledged that Calgary did a "great job" defensively.

Rich Preston, the Calgary assistant coach, praised the Flames for playing so well in close quarters. "There wasn't much room out there,'' he said. "Both teams could smell the garlic on each other's breath."

Therein lies the problem. It's not the halitosis Preston alluded to, but the fact the teams expended so much energy to assure that not much of anything happened on the ice.

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For all the attempts by the National Hockey League to inject more offence into the game, the early returns are not promising. Through yesterday morning, the 39 games played in the first week of the season produced 178 goals, just more than 4.5 a game. That's down about a goal a game from last season's overall totals.

All the key Calgary players (Jarome Iginla, Craig Conroy, Dean McAmmond and Martin Gelinas) were still looking for their first goals of the season, as were most of the key Edmonton players (Ales Hemsky, Mike York, Radek Dvorak and Brad Isbister).

Entering play last night, it was the same elsewhere in the league.

In Anaheim, only Rob Niedermayer has scored for the Mighty Ducks (two goals in three games). In St. Louis, only Keith Tkachuk has scored for the Blues (three goals in two games). Mats Sundin is still waiting for his first goal, as is Markus Naslund, Sergei Fedorov, Glen Murray, Ron Francis, Teemu Selanne, Brett Hull, Alexei Kovalev, Marian Hossa and Jeremy Roenick.

On and on, it goes.

Now, a week may be too soon to identify an absolute trend and it does not necessarily follow that a high-scoring game is always entertaining.

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Tkachuk, a two-time 50-goal scorer, was asked whether there will be more scoring this season as opposed to last year.

"I don't know," he said. "I know that with our team, we have to try to play those 2-1 and 3-2 games. Some teams may take a different approach, but we want to take a defence-first approach. We're built around a good defence. We have the best defence in the league. We want to tighten it up rather than run and gun."

That sounds ominous.

If it were up to Tkachuk, would he prefer to play all-out offence? Early in his career, he played for the Winnipeg Jets, who had a 72-goal scorer in Selanne and a defenceman, Phil Housley, who could thread the needle with the best of them.

Tkachuk cited the New Jersey Devils and their success in recent years, winning the Stanley Cup with a team concept.

"Hey, everybody loves to score goals, no question about it,'' he said. "But in order to get to the next level, you have to take that type of approach -- play a good defensive game and you'll create some chances."

Some chances maybe, but not many.

The Blues opened the season by playing two 2-1 games: one victory and one loss. Even though they were outshot 19-3 in the second period last Sunday, the Blues knocked off the Avalanche because of Chris Osgood's stellar goaltending. Colorado is one of a handful of teams committed to an attacking style. It doesn't always succeed, but at least they're making the effort.

Recently, the Avalanche's Paul Kariya said that depending upon their personnel, not every team in a 30-team league can play all-out offence. The problem, according to Kariya, is that too many teams with enough talent to go for goals simply elect not to, stressing defence because it is an easier style to play.

So, for example, there was Chicago Blackhawks coach Brian Sutter, speaking for coaches everywhere this week, expressing less concern about the three goals in three games Chicago had scored and more about the nine goals in two games the Hawks had surrendered.

"We'd like to have more offence and a parting of the seas when we head up the ice, but as much as you guys don't like it and as many questions as you ask, it ain't going to happen that way," Sutter said. "To score three goals in a game in this league is darn tough."

And darn tough is quickly evolving into darn near impossible, which most people will agree is a darn shame.

eduhatschek@globeandmail.ca

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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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