'Sloppy' hockey is the name of the game early in NHL season

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San Jose's Erik Karlsson (65) handles the puck against Minnesota Wild's Nick Bjugstad (27) in the third period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. San Jose won 5-3. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

With an outbreak delaying the Dallas Stars' opener, Rick Bowness got to watch a lot of hockey in the first couple of nights of the NHL season. It wasn't a coach's dream.

“It was entertaining hockey, but it was a little sloppy,” Bowness said. “And that’s to be expected.”

Sloppy is the term being used all over the league to describe play in the first two weeks of the season. After no exhibition games — and no action at all for seven teams in the past 10 months — there have been plenty of odd-man rushes and mistakes, with six goals a game being scored on average.

Only strong goaltending has kept it from looking like the high-scoring, wide-open 1980s.

“Guys are a little rusty for sure,” Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup-winning captain Steven Stamkos said. “You don’t realize how important exhibition games are until you don’t have any to just get some timing down.”

Timing has been thrown off by a bevy of injuries and some virus-related absences. Teams are shuffling their lineups more, losing the kind of chemistry that usually builds up through training camp and into the season.

“We’re always throwing guys in and out and it’s hard to get some continuity,” said Bowness, whose Stars have only played three games so far. “And it’s not just us. It’s a lot of teams around the league. So that adds to this bit of sloppy play.”

Sloppy could be a synonym for undisciplined, and referees are getting plenty of practice blowing their whistles and putting an arm in the air. Games are averaging more than seven penalties apiece so far, which contributes to New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz's theory that special teams “seem to be the difference-makers every night now.”