NHL hockey hasn't been terribly relevant since the early '90s, when the New York Rangers hoisted the Stanley Cup and EA launched its breakout NHL franchise on the Sega Genesis. But by the late '90s—after the Wayne Gretzky head-bleeding sequence in Swingers—EA's NHL games went way downhill, embracing arcade-style speed, and tossing realism into the penalty box. But like Mario Lemieux taking to the ice again, the once-storied series has officially completed its comeback with NHL 08.
Last season, the game included what many felt was the first true next-gen feature, when EA moved stick-handling and shooting to the right analog stick. This year, the game is demonstrably improved—not only is the shooting stick more nuanced, the redone skating engine is finely tuned, and it makes cruising around the ice a complete joy. The A.I. is smart, too—players stay onsides during a power play, and defenders adapt as the game goes on. Pass out to the point for a booming slapshot too often, and they'll charge your defense and force you to work it in low for great opportunities. The game's biggest issue is the goalie play, as net-minders don't have enough holes—going five-hole is very rare. You won't get a rush from every goal, as they don't all feel unique, as they do in games like Pro Evolution Soccer.
Beyond the game: Canadia rejoice! NHL 08 is the first game in EA Sports history to feature online leagues.
Worth playing for: With the new loose-puck mechanic, you can do some killer dekes—one of which lets you put the puck between the defenders' legs. If it works, you'll come out clean on the other side, with an excellent scoring opportunity.
Frustration sets in when: The hitting might seem light for headhunters, but this isn't rock-'em sock-'em hockey like its more WWE-esque competitor, NHL 2K8. It's authentic hockey with a rare but meaningful big hit.
Final judgment: Finally, an answer to the early-'90s hockey heyday, NHL 08 is a blazingly swift, smart, well-crafted sports title that brings out hockey's best bits.