No shaking the defence

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

A concern shared by National Hockey League defencemen when some of the league's new rules were unveiled prior to the season was that if they didn't suddenly grow eyes in the backs of their heads, they were going to be in big trouble.

The crackdown on obstruction was going to be killer for defencemen, since forechecking forwards could no longer be held up and therefore would be free to slam defencemen into the end boards when they retreated to get the puck.

But those who patrol the blue line say, for the most part, that has not been the case.

"We were worried we were going to get run all over the place, but I don't think it's as bad as we thought," Jay McKee of the Buffalo Sabres said. "On the flip side, when we get the puck down low, we have a step on the forward because he can't hook us either.

"Positioning is more important than anything now. If we can get a step on a guy, we're clear to get out of the zone."

The Philadelphia Flyers' Eric Desjardins, who broke into the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens in 1988-89, has noticed a difference when defending against the forecheck.

"It has been all right for us, but we see a change, no doubt about it," Desjardins said. "We need help from our forwards more or from our partner to help us break out because teams are coming at you with speed and they are right on you. You need to have a quick out."

Though both McKee and Desjardins lamented that some of the physical play has gone by the wayside, especially checking opposing forwards in front of the net, both said they like the greater emphasis on offence.

"I enjoy now more than ever turning on the TV at night and watching the other games," said McKee, who leads the league with 220 blocked shots. "It's a much more exciting game. I certainly wish the calls wouldn't be so strict with the physical play, but we have made the adjustment."

DESIGNS ON NO. 9

Though the playoffs won't include the Florida Panthers for the fifth consecutive season, the Maple Leafs should not expect the Panthers to hand them two points tomorrow night at the Air Canada Centre.

After last night's 6-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Panthers were four points out of ninth in the Eastern Conference and were shooting for that position.

"We've been building a fan base, so we definitely want to win games and be in that ninth place," captain Olli Jokinen told the Palm Beach Post. "That's still a possibility. The fans and us as players will have a better feeling going to the long summer."

More than a few Panthers will want to put the screws to the Leafs. Coach Jacques Martin lost his job in Ottawa because the Senators, under his watch, were unable to beat the Leafs in the post-season. And there are savvy veterans Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts and defenceman Ric Jackman, who all put in good time with Toronto. Nieuwendyk, meanwhile, will miss the playoffs for only the third time in 18 NHL seasons.

AROUND THE RINKS

What are the chances the Leafs will try to sign Tampa's Brad Richards to an offer sheet this summer? ... There was no indication he was trying to do so, but Calgary Flames coach Darryl Sutter got in a little dig at Vancouver Canucks coach Marc Crawford following Saturday's Canucks win in overtime against Calgary. "On paper, they are probably the most talented team in this conference," Sutter said. The Canucks might miss the playoffs ... Jaromir Jagr of the New York Rangers is on the verge of doing something he has never done before: Lead the NHL in goals in one season. He had 53 going into last night, two more than Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk ... Finishing badly is old hat for the Los Angeles Kings, who have lost 10 of 14. Two years ago, they lost their last 11 games. Kings general manager Dave Taylor is on thin ice ... One sign offence has flourished this season -- there are five players who could wind up with 50 goals. There were none in 2003-04, and one in each of the two years before that ... Many NHL players take issue with the rule that says a player shooting the puck over the glass gets a minor penalty. One new rule that sits well with the Sabres' Mike Grier is the inability of a team to change when it ices the puck. "It rewards a team for pressuring another team and keeping them in their own end, and you get a fresh start," Grier said.

THE WEEK AHEAD

A home-and-home set between the San Jose Sharks and Canucks on Wednesday in Vancouver and Thursday in San Jose could determine the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.If the Canucks don't make it, Crawford could be out of a job ... The Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers renew hostilities tomorrow, five days after Tampa's Chris Dingman wiped out Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen ... Though the regular season does not end until April 18, the Canucks, Boston Bruins and Minnesota Wild finish on Saturday.


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