If applied, new rules will keep best teams alive

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

Now if the National Hockey League playoffs wind up being as good as the regular season, we'll really have something to look forward to.

Keep your fingers crossed the NHL doesn't suddenly get cold feet, allowing its officials to revert to letting hooking, holding and interference creep back into the game.

There will be some movement to that end. There is already great knee-knocking that the new rules, if called properly, could cost a team a playoff series.

What the NHL needs to recognize is most fans like the new rules. They like the direction the game is going.

What's important to recognize is if the rules are applied, those two- and three-period overtime games are really a thing of the past.

That's because in days gone by, those overtime games looked more like football than hockey. No holds barred and no penalties called. Good scoring chances were at a minimum, not because it was a good defensive game but because if you got anywhere near the net, someone would lasso you and no call would be made.

The way it's supposed to work now, no matter what time in the game or the situation, a penalty is a penalty.

Take that further and it means a team lacking skill will be far less likely to go very deep in these playoffs. We've grown used to upsets in the playoffs. Teams that had no business winning would surprise everyone. Less skilled teams were allowed to get away with all sorts of stuff that neutralized another team's skill.

If you do it now, you'll be sitting in the box -- we hope.

Sports Poll, a new service by TNS Canadian Facts, tracks on a quarterly basis Canadian sports fans' attitudes about sports, sports personalities, sports sponsorship and other key measures.

Forty-nine per cent of NHL viewers in Canada said this season was more exciting than previous years. Thirty-two per cent) think the games were as exciting as previous years, with 19 per cent saying that 2005-06 was less exciting.

The fans indicated the flow of the game, the shootout and a crackdown on obstruction as reasons for the improvement in the game.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman revealed yesterday that there were almost 13,000 fewer stoppages this season than in 2003-04 as a result of rule changes involving the "tag-up" offside, elimination of two-line pass and waving off of potential icings.

Bettman also said officials who don't call penalties if a penalty is merited during the NHL playoffs will find themselves without playoff assignments.

That pretty much guarantees penalties will be called because officials like the limelight as much as players do.

With skill returning as a premium for the playoffs, teams that have a real flow to their game will do well.

Not many considered the San Jose Sharks legitimate Stanley Cup contenders midway through the season. It's amazing what one player can do, though.

If you wanted to put together an ideal player for today's game, it would be Joe Thornton. The St. Thomas native is big and tough to move off the puck. He has tremendous skill, especially as a passer. Ask Jonathan Cheechoo, who scored 56 goals playing with Thornton this season. He makes the Sharks contenders.

The Anaheim Mighty Ducks will give Calgary a tough time because of skilled players such as Teemu Selanne, Strathroy's Andy McDonald and Scott Niedermayer.

Then there's the Detroit Red Wings. Not many people believed they would have this kind of phenomenal season. Too old, too slow.

Many still believe this team is vulnerable. But it has a lot of skill and experience and some good young players such as Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Londoner Jason Williams.

The Ottawa Senators are the favourites in the Eastern Conference and their skill component is beyond doubt. The New Jersey Devils are going into the playoffs having won 11 games in a row.

Good teams playing to rules being called the way they should be. It's a recipe for playoff hockey the way it should be played.


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