Bry McDermott

Bry McDermott is a sports writer for The Indiana Gazette. Email her at bmcdermott@indiana gazette.net

The state of the NHL couldn’t be better.

Prior to Wednesday’s Game 1 puck drop of the Stanley Cup Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy

commissioner Bill Daly gave their annual state of the union presser in

Colorado.

The league is looking at record-high revenue for the 2021-22 season at approximately $5.2 billion, and Bettman assured that was thinking conservatively. In comparison, the last normal, pre-pandemic

season was 2018-19, which brought in $4.6 billion in

revenue, according to ESPN.

Bettman said within two or three years, the NHL will have fully recovered from its COVID losses, which should lead to salary cap jumps higher than the $1 million increase the league will see for next season.

What contributed to this standout year? Arenas returning to full

capacity and a new U.S. media rights deal with ESPN and TNT certainly helped — though,

according to Nielsen ratings analyzed by the Sports Business Journal, TV ratings were actually down 23 percent in the U.S. for regular-season games compared to last year’s COVID-shortened season.

However, Bettman

pointed to the game itself as the reason for success.

“Everything we do and the growth of the game and the interest in the game starts with the game,” he said during Wednesday’s presser. “And the game is in extraordinary shape on the ice.”

Hold your boos, because for once Bettman is right.

The game is growing not just because ESPN and Co. are putting in the bare

minimum to market the league, but because the on-ice competition has been top-tier despite the inconsistency in player safety and penalties.

An average of 6.28 goals were scored per

regular-season game, the highest rate since the

1992-93 season.

There’s no doubt that more goals bring more excitement to the game. The absolute chaos of the crowd erupting for a goal is one of the best parts of the sport, and that excitement can help new fans gravitate toward the NHL.

The Penguins led the league for the second

consecutive year in TV

ratings with their games on AT&T Pittsburgh averaging a 5.43 Nielsen rating, which is still 30 percent less than last season. Pittsburgh has held the top spot for TV ratings nine times over the last 16 years.

Aside from having

generational talents like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and a recent history of success, the Pens also hovered above the league average for goals scored per game (3.14) with their 3.28 in ’21-22.

Game 7 of the Penguin-Rangers playoff series on TBS in May brought in 2.6 million

viewers to make it the most-watched first-round game ever on cable and the most-watched non-Stanley Cup Final game on cable since Game 7 between

Washington and Tampa Bay fought in the Eastern Conference Final in 2018.

Meanwhile, the

Avalanche’s 8-6 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on TNT was the most-watched Western Conference Final Game 1 on cable since 1999, according to the NHL.

Colorado scored 24 goals in its Western Conference sweep of Edmonton and leads the postseason with 69 goals in 15 games played.

There’s no secret behind the increase in goal scoring.

Hockey is not the same game it was just 10 years ago.

The enforcer has been phased out to make room for more talented goal scorers and playmakers.

Say what you want about Washington’s Tom Wilson being an aggressor, but the right winger can contribute beyond questionable hits and fistfights. Wilson just came off the best scoring season of his career with 52 points and 24 goals in 78 regular-season games before he was injured during the opening playoff series.

Teams are looking for contributors that can score, not just fight.

The erasure of the goon is only part of the increase in goals.

Defensemen are also stepping up to get on the scoresheet.

Three defensemen — Norris Trophy Finalists Victor Hedman, Roman Josi and Cale Makar — averaged at least a point per game for the first time since 1995-96, according to ESPN. Overall, 64 defensemen tallied at least 30 points, the most in NHL history for a single season.

It’s not like goalies are slacking either.

The combined save percentage of playoff teams at the start of Round 1 was .920.

Other than Edmonton’s Mike Smith’s colossal embarrassment of a playoff performance, the goalies in the postseason have been stellar.

Look at Pittsburgh and New York’s triple-overtime thriller to kick off Round 1. The goaltending between the Pens’ Casey DeSmith and Louis Domingue and the Rangers’ Vezina-favorite Igor Shesterkin was just as exciting as Evgeni Malkin tipping one in to end the marathon in New York.

Those goalies managed to play more than 100 minutes of hockey and allowed only a total of seven goals (4-3, Pens). That’s a feat unto itself.

Just like how the crowd exploding for a goal can be infectious, the collective sigh of relief after a huge save is equally thrilling.

Off the top of my head, I couldn’t tell you who scored the game-winning goal in the Penguins’ 2-1 Game 7 victory over the Detroit Red Wings in 2009 to win the first Stanley Cup of the Crosby era, but I can tell you nearly every detail of Marc-Andre Fleury’s diving stop on Nicklas Lidstrom’s rebound attempt from the left circle with two seconds left in the game.

Max Talbot scored both of Pittsburgh’s goals that game, in case you were wondering.

The point is that goalies have to raise their game to match the unbelievable talent of the skaters looking to get one past them, and the fans only win by watching them do just that.

To go along with everything, power-play opportunities were at an all-time low at 2.9 per team per game during the regular season; meaning this surge of goals isn’t coming from tilted ice.

There are simply more talented players in the NHL than ever because of advancements in conditioning, training, nutrition and statistical analysis, and it’s showing in positive ways.

We’ll give Bettman this one — the NHL is in a good place because of the sheer amount of talent on the ice.

However, it won’t save him from his yearly boos when presenting either Colorado or Tampa Bay with the Stanley Cup.