* EA continues to raise the bar -- stick?-- with its smooth, intuitive control scheme. Everything revolves around the right analog stick, which becomes an extension of your hockey stick in the game. The beauty of this controller set up is that you can go from passing to puck handling to shooting in one motion.
* In addition to the smooth offensive controls, EA also upped the defensive capabilities. Poke checking helps turn good defense into quick strike offense. Time your poke checks correctly and you're off to the races on a breakaway. In order to combat the blatant abuse of stealing away the puck, NHL 09 also included a "protect the puck" control, which helps you fend off, and occasionally take advantage of, overeager defenders.
* Scoring can be a little bit frustrating in NHL 09 and it's not necessarily for the sake of realism. Precision passing and play making isn't always rewarded, while aggressive wraparounds are very effective. Wrist shots and slap shots only light the lamp when they're bounced in off of posts at near impossible angles.
NHL 09 in action
* 2K went simple. Real simple. Like Cletus-from-The Simpsons simple. With the default controls, hit one button to shoot, hit another button to pass and so on and so forth. Half the controller is taken out of the equation with this setup. You can try out one-on-one dekes with combo controls (hold down L1, maneuver the right analog accordingly) but those take your finger away from the shot button and result in turnovers. Switch to the hybrid controls and you get a watered down version of 09's control scheme. Simplifying the controls was supposed to help make 2K9 a pick up and play title, but EA's controls still feel more natural.
* 2K's player energy meters may look like a nod to classic arcade sports games, but combined with the On the Fly Coach feature, the meters actually provide an interesting strategic device. Pay attention to who is worn out and who is at full strength in order to put your best forward line on the ice in crunch time. You can also pick on your opponent's worn out defenders.
* The goofy mini-games in 2K9 rule. Race zambonis between periods to see who can clear more ice and you'll quickly learn that the real fun comes in ramming each other like a pair of monster truck bumper cars. You can also switch things up with a game of four-on-four pond hockey. Draft four All-Stars and face off on a quiet pond surrounded by snow drifts. Or skate around the mini-rink for a game of two-on-two where the puck flies off the boards like you're playing air hockey.
NHL 2K9 in action
* EA has a traditional franchise mode as well as a couple of European team tournaments, but the prized possession of this year's game is the Be A Pro mode. Turn on the game and you're prompted to create a player. Once you've modified your player's features, you're dumped into the AHL. Sloppy play and a lot of bench time marks your early trials as you work your way toward the pros. Slowly improve each element of your game and you'll eventually skate with the pros. It's amazing how EA tweaked the level of play to reflect what league you're playing in. Be A Pro is one of the most realistic -- and as a result, time-consuming -- simulations we've seen in a sports game.
* Franchise Mode for 2K9 sticks to the traditional blueprint. Day-to-day management includes everything from roster cuts to scouting. You won't be wowed, but you'll still have a chance to lead your favorite team on a quest for the Cup.
* NHL 09's gameplay looks fantastic, accentuated by the player's smooth, natural movements. As each game progresses, the ice gets carved up by skate lines and there are little flourishes like untucked jerseys stuck on the back of player's pants.
* 2K9 has an odd issue with its graphics. The pregame intros look amazing, the individual crowd members sport unique wardrobe details and the ice shimmers with reflections throughout the games. Unfortunately, the central action has glitches. On occasion, refs have transparent faces. Also, in addition to robotic player movements, the players randomly skate through each other. The extra touches are nice, but the focus should've been on the players on the ice.
* Gary Thorne takes the play-by-play lead in 09 and the game does a good job of avoiding repetitive clichés. Thorne also flashes some hockey knowledge by discussing various players' career paths to the NHL as well as other tidbits throughout the game action.
* EA also uses audio effectively during pregame tunnel scenes. Each game starts with a traditional crowd shot before heading into the bowels of the stadium with the team. As the players mill about waiting to take the ice, the music and crowd noises are muted and thumping from above, making for a very realistic experience.
* 2K9 suffers from what most sports games suffer through in that its announcers don't take long to start repeating the same points during gameplay. They do get bonus points for having the crowds react to the play on the ice instead of just offering up a steady level of white noise cheering.
* You can get 12 gamers together and you've got everyone on the ice being controlled by someone. Just choose your teammates accordingly. There are definitely gamers out there more prone to off-sides than your generic AI teammates.
* 2K9 also lets you get together with 12 of your closest online buddies for a friendly face off. But the real online competition comes in a series of weekly tournaments promising prizes for the winner as well as a chance for your online avatar to appear in 2K10.
EA is on the brink of a Madden-like takeover in the hockey game world. Intuitive controls, the in-depth Be A Pro mode, the smooth look and feel of the action on the ice. NHL 09 is the game to grab. The more arcade-like 2K9 will have to go back to the drawing board or risk being nudged into obscurity.
-- Reviewed by Paul Ulane, SI.com