More power to ya!

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:43 AM ET

Half the game?

Forty minutes out of 60?

In a surprise move, the NHL has given its referees a zero-tolerance mandate on interference and obstruction for 2005-06.

We've heard it all before, of course, but the big difference between this crackdown, and all the other crackdowns they swore they'd enforce to the end -- and didn't -- is that this time they're swearing they'll enforce it to the end.

And we should probably assume that the players, undefeated in this annual war of wills, aren't going to blithely abandon a style they've been taught since peewee without some serious convincing.

So until the two sides agree on a happy medium -- somewhere between tackling guys in the neutral zone and getting two minutes for looking at them funny -- exactly how much of a new-look NHL game will be spent on special teams?

Half the game? Forty minutes? Most players are afraid to even guess, but they know it's going to be lots.

CREATURES OF HABIT

"Quite honestly, I think we're going to be dealing with a huge amount, especially in the early going," said assistant coach Craig Simpson, in charge of a power play that, given the circumstances, could make or break the Edmonton Oilers this season.

"Players are creatures of habit and will revert back to some of the instinctive things they do, so you have to be prepared, I think, to be killing off 10-12 penalties a game and getting 10 or 12 power plays. You do the math."

Let's see, 12 two-minute power plays +12 two-minute penalties = you'd better be bloody good on special teams or you'll sink like a concrete rowboat.

"If you want to have any kind of success this year you'll have to be great on special teams," said Radek Dvorak. "Because you're going to be able to win games with just power play goals now."

Now and forever, adds GM Kevin Lowe, part of the NHL's competition committee.

"There's probably still a few teams that refuse to believe it's going to stay," he said, adding he's instructed his club to accept the new style and says anyone who doesn't is in for some hard lessons.

"It's an advantage for teams that take this seriously ... and if guys don't figure it out they're not going to play."

The Oilers get their first look at Crackdown '05, with NHL referees at the whistle, in tonight's exhibition game against Calgary. Plans to add a new wing to the penalty box are at the ready.

"We're all wondering the same thing," said Shawn Horcoff. "We heard from exhibition games in Minnesota there were something like 10 or 15 five-on-threes, so your special teams better be pretty good."

Last time we saw the Edmonton Oilers, their special teams were a train wreck. The PK was 27th in the league and their 29th-ranked power play did more harm than good most nights, killing momentum, angering fans and chugging in a hopeless 13 per cent. "It's definitely an area we need to improve," said Horcoff. "If we could have improved our power play last season, just four or five per cent, we would have been in the playoffs easily."

The new guys -- Chris Pronger and Mike Peca -- are scheduled to help in both departments, but if we're talking 30 or 40 minutes of special teams play a night, they'll need plenty of support.

PENALTY-FILLED GAME

"You don't want guys getting worn out while the rest of your bench is getting stale, which is what usually happens in a penalty-filled game," said Simpson. "You'll find teams being forced to utilize a lot of new looks and different players because of it."

Clubs will have to rely on second and third line depth rather than riding the coat tails of first line superstars, which Peca says will suit Edmonton fine.

"This team reminds me a lot of the Cup team we had in '99 in Buffalo, in that we don't have many front-runners on the power play," he said. "Everybody will have an equal opportunity to contribute."

More, hopefully, than they did last season.


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