Monday, September 19, 2005

The days when an NHL forward couldn’t get through the neutral zone riding a bulldozer appear to be over.

Fans coming to watch a preseason game between the Buffalo Sabres and Washington Capitals tomorrow night at MCI Center will see a new set of rules dictated not only by players and management but by fans who have shown their displeasure by not coming to arenas or watching games on television.

Their message was received, and so hockey skates into an era that probably should have begun years ago.

“You have to keep your fans in mind or you’re not going to have any,” Caps general manager George McPhee said yesterday while discussing the new rules. “Overall, I think all the things that have been done to the game are good for the game. It just looks better.”

And much faster, freer flowing and higher scoring. Hockey no longer looks like a Mexican hat dance on skates in which a player has his hands wrapped around the person in front of him. Do that now and it’s a visit to the penalty box.

Actually, many of the rules “changes” have been in the books for years, but the league now insists they will be enforced. That includes the obstruction fouls that prevented the highest-skilled, fastest individuals from displaying their talents. And there are some actual changes, including the removal of the red line, that open up the ice for two-line passes and could turn what have been slow games into track meets.

“It’s nice to see that players who know how to play the game will be able to excel,” McPhee said.

In fact, it is difficult if not impossible to find anyone who doesn’t agree these changes are necessary for the NHL to be relevant after a 310-day lockout that forced cancellation of the 2004-05 season.

“It’s healthy for the game,” said Caps goalie Olie Kolzig, a large individual who relied on skill and reflexes rather than huge pads to excel. “Most of us are traditionalists and like the game the way it was, but it was starting to get boring. So they have to generate some new excitement to bring those fans in that we probably lost during the lockout and make some new fans, create the excitement that was there in 1994 [when the New York Rangers were champions].”

Said veteran center Jeff Halpern: “You have to be fast now. You used to be able to get by with hooking and holding. Not now. You can’t wrap guys up the way it was in the past. And it’s going to help having taller, rangy guys who can use their sticks to poke-check pucks out of danger.”

All of that is evident from looking at the Caps, by far the fastest and tallest Washington team ever although inexperienced.

“The game you’re going to see will be better once the players adapt to it,” coach Glen Hanlon said. “The rules are not complicated. You can still hit and do all those things; you just can’t grab people.”

Notes — As expected, goalie Maxime Daigneault was sent to the Hershey Bears’ training camp yesterday, leaving Kolzig and Maxime Ouellet the only two netminders in the Caps camp. Daigneault played in 11 games last season for the Portland Pirates, the Caps’ former AHL affiliate, posting a 3-2-1 record and a 2.91 goals-against average. He also played 21 games for the South Carolina Stingrays, the Caps’ ECHL affiliate, where he posted an 11-6-1 record with a 3.02 GAA and one shutout. … There’s still no sign of tardy forward Petr Sykora, who had been expected in Washington from his native Czech Republic yesterday. Russian Alexander Semin still hasn’t shown up either.

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