SUN Hockey Pool

Be prepared!

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:52 AM ET

A penalty shot in overtime?

A two-man advantage with four minutes in the third period of a tie game?

A 10-5 difference in power plays in a late March game between two teams fighting for the same playoff spot? What, are they filming a sequel to Youngblood?

It's been a long time since we've seen referees outside of cheesy Hollywood hockey movies getting this involved, this late in big games, this late in the season.

In fact, it's probably never happened before. But it looks like, for the first time in history, the NHL is going to maintain its obstruction crackdown through an entire season, and maybe even into the playoffs.

"I really think our guys know they have the support from everyone within the NHL, from Gary Bettman right through the owners, general managers and players, to stay the course,'' said NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom, whose referees are proving, two minutes at a time, that they're serious about calling it by the letter of the law, regardless of the score, the period, or the calendar.

"For years, when we tried this before, the referees were caught in the middle. It was difficult for an official, at any time in the hockey game, to call a penalty on a non-puck carrier 50 feet away from the play, even when it was being committed time and time again.''

Now they're sending guys off for harmless infractions, leaving teams two men short, at a time of the season when, for the last 75 years, they normally put away the whistles and let them play.

"They've stayed with it the whole year, which is unusual,'' said Oilers centre Shawn Horcoff. "Every other year it's only lasted for a month or so. They've done a good job of cracking down, but the thing they have to improve on is the consistency.''

Indeed. With stricter enforcement standards come a new set of problems. It was easy to develop consistency from game to game and referee to referee when nobody ever called anything. Now, with officials having to make split-second decisions on every hook, hold and elbow, the definition of a penalty can vary.

"It seems like every game is different,'' said Sergei Samsonov. "There are games where they let us play and games where they start calling everything right away. You almost have to feel it out in the first period, see how it goes and see what they're going to call.''

Walkom admits there is room for improvement.

"It's an ongoing thing,'' said the former referee. "Some games will be better officiated than others. It's a faster game now and the speed of the game demands more from the officials. But our guys are working hard not to waver from the new standard.''

The most crucial challenge is yet to come - the playoffs. It's one thing to put a team two-men down late in the third period now. Will they do it when calling a slash away from the play can end a team's season?

And do the fans want them to? Since the dawn of the NHL, "lumberjack rules,'' went into effect in the spring. The playoffs were about fighting through checks and seeing which side had the greater courage and will to win.

"They've said time and time again they're going to uphold the standard, so it'll be interesting to see,'' said Vancouver's Brendan Morrison.

"They've stuck with it so far and there have already been some important games where they had to call penalties late,'' adds Samsonov. "They should get the message out that it's going to be the same way in the playoffs because, for the most part, it has made the game better.''

The message is clear. There are 33 referees in the NHL and only 22 of them make the playoffs. The ones who can't get it right now won't get a chance in late April.

"The real skill of an official is to be able to work to the NHL's standard, whatever it is, and not think about the outside variables,'' said Walkom, adding they've been instructed to maintain the crackdown through June.

If someone loses a game, so be it, he says.

"When we started this I remember saying at the owners' meeting that you're going to win games on fouls that weren't historically called, and you're going to lose games the same way. Be prepared for that.''

n T's top five

The Oilers have fallen behind early more times than they care to remember this season. Here are the top five possible explanations for the slow starts:

It's probably not a good idea to use Brokeback Mountain as their inspirational pre-game video.

They should politely decline next time Esa Tikkanen asks if he can say a few words to get the boys fired up.

Pre-game naps are a good idea, but set the alarm a little earlier than 6:55.

The BoSox did Crown Royal shots before playoff games, but it's probably not a good idea in hockey.

Just a hunch, but you shouldn't have turkey dinner as the pre-game meal.

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T'S TOP FIVE

The Oilers have fallen behind early more times than they care to remember this season. Here are the top five possible explanations for the slow starts:

5- It's probably not a good idea to use Brokeback Mountain as their inspirational pre-game video.

4- They should politely decline next time Esa Tikkanen asks if he can say a few words to get the boys fired up.

3- Pre-game naps are a good idea, but set the alarm a little earlier than 6:55.

2- The BoSox did Crown Royal shots before playoff games, but it's probably not a good idea in hockey.

1- Just a hunch, but you shouldn't have turkey dinner as the pre-game meal.

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T'S TEAM OF THE WEEK

C- STEVE REINPRECHT (COYOTES)

It's too late to do Phoenix any good, but seven points in three games.

LW- BRAD BOYES (Bruins)

A seven-game point streak is good anywhere, but it's great this year in Boston.

RW- JAROMIR JAGR (Rangers)

He's reborn in New York, with 10 points in four games and an Art Ross shot.

LD- ROB BLAKE (Avalanche)

Plus-nine with five points in his last four - almost got hot in time for the Olympics.

RD- JONI PITKANEN (Flyers)

You have to be good with a name like Joni: Nine points in seven games.

G- RAY EMERY (Senators)

Six goals against in four wins. Painting Tyson on his mask is all but forgotten.

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T'S QUOTE OF THE WEEK

" YOU'VE GOT THAT UGLY MUTT ... GOING FOR HIS KNEE. AND YOU WONDER WHY YOU HAVE INCIDENTS LIKE TODD BERTUZZI.''

-- Pittsburgh's Andre Roy, after Andrej Meszaros low-bridged Sidney Crosby.

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THEY SAID IT

- "It's probably the right decision, but in part, shame on the players. Shame on Jeremy Roenick for not sticking his nose in every night. Shame on the players who laid Andy out to dry. They'd better perform now.''

- Kings CEO Tim Leiweke, after firing Andy Murray.

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- "Is that a stupid rule or what? Is that stupid? Can you find a rule more stupid than that?''

- Wild coach Jacques Lemaire, on a delay of game penalty to Brian Rolston after his icing attempt flew into the netting above the other team's goal.

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- "I just had to stand there, basically.'''

- Detroit's Manny Legace after a shutout win over San Jose.


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