Q: To what do you attribute the disparity between the Penguins' win-loss records inside and outside their division?
Bill Owens, North Huntingdon
MOLINARI: One of the primary mandates of a newspaper -- and, by extension, a newspaper's Q&A features -- is to provide useful information for its readers. In this case, however, if the moderator of this forum could reasonably explain why the Penguins are 4-10-1 against Atlantic Division teams but were 17-6-1 against the rest of the league before facing Toronto last night, he would take that knowledge and sell it to the team's front office for big money, because knowing how to correct that shortcoming would be worth an awful lot to the club.
The Penguins' record inside the Atlantic (20-9-3) in 2006-07 was a major factor in their success, but it's pretty much out of the question for them to replicate that this season. Indeed, they would have to win all 17 of their remaining intra-division games simply to match the 43 points they took out of those games a year ago.
Although the Penguins have not, in general, performed particularly well against Atlantic opponents this winter, it's worth noting that several of those teams upgraded their personnel during the offseason. The most striking example is Philadelphia, against which the Penguin went 8-0 last season. The Flyers have rebounded to win the first three games of the season series in 2007-08.
Q: What exactly is the fight instigator rule, and why do so many prominent hockey analysts want to do away with it?
MOLINARI: The instigator rule (actually, Rules 47.11-47.22) gives referees the authority to assess a player deemed responsible for starting a fight a two-minute minor and 10-minute misconduct, along with the usual five-minute fighting major, for his actions.
It was introduced in the 1992-93 season (with no minor penalty but a game misconduct, not the 10-minute kind) and has been in its current form since 1996-97. The rule was rooted in the league' desire to deter tough guys from trying to get more skilled players off the ice by getting them involved in fights.
It succeeded in reducing the number of fights, but critics contend that the instigator rule often prevents players from "policing" the game themselves, and that there has been a pronounced increase in stickwork since the rule took effect.
Those who oppose the instigator rule tend to be proponents of fighting, who believe it is an integral part of the game. Those who see it as a worthwhile addition to the rulebook seem, more often than not, to be part of the group that wouldn't object to the NHL following the lead of college and international hockey and banning fighting altogether.