Game on- Season begins Wednesday

Sunday, October 2, 2005

NEW YORK -- Maybe by the time the NHL takes its Olympic break in February, some of the burning questions facing the relaunched league will have been answered.

Teenage phenom Sidney Crosby will have a few months under his belt as he tries to show he can live up to comparisons to Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky.

Gretzky, meanwhile, will be busy with his first job as an NHL coach.

They'll all be working under a new set of playing rules created to spark offensive excitement in a game that has gotten stale.

But if the interest is there, will people even find the games on their cable TV lineup?

And after a year without the NHL, will they even care to try?

On Wednesday, the NHL returns to the ice 16 months after its last real game. All 30 teams will be in action, and the game's reintroduction to the North American sports landscape truly will begin.

Done is the talk of collective bargaining agreements, salary caps, lockouts and cries of financial distress.

"No one likes the business side of sports," Dallas forward Mike Modano said. "Finally, the game has gone to the forefront, the business part is over with."

Tie games have gone the way of inflated payrolls. Shootouts will be used to break all regular-season deadlocks not settled in overtime, and goalies with have to play with smaller equipment and leave alone pucks that go into the corners.

Crosby will be welcomed to Pittsburgh, the town that had the NHL's worst team in the spring of 2004 but now perhaps has one of the best. The No. 1 pick in this year's draft landed with the Penguins after a lottery.

The Penguins also squeezed top forwards Mark Recchi, John LeClair and Ziggy Palffy, defenseman Sergei Gonchar and goalie Jocelyn Thibault into the new $39 million salary cap that was at the heart of last year's labor battle.

A flurry of player movement started in August following the labor agreement.

"It's kind of a crapshoot right now," said defenseman Chris Pronger, a former St. Blues captain and now of the Edmonton Oilers. "Teams that have chemistry early on and are able to gel and adapt to the rule changes and everything are really going to be able to take off early on in the season and try to get a little bump or cushion for the dog days of January and February, when teams usually get into a little bit of a malaise."

The game also will be different.

More room was created in the offensive zone, at the expense of the neutral zone and space behind each goal. Defenseman now are allowed to fire home-run passes from end to end, because the red line has been removed -- enabling passes across two lines.

But defensemen will have to chase the puck more often, too, because goalies have been limited to where they can play it.

Goaltenders must stay within a trapezoidal area when playing pucks below the goal line, which will force defensemen to backtrack more to get to dump-ins. More pressure will be created by onrushing forwards, which should lead to mistakes and scoring chances.

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