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Whistle Stop Tour, continued

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
"Everyone here can skate. But it is going to separate the slower skating teams and the lack of skill that a player has. If you can think the game and skate, it's going to allow you the freedom to have even more success."

Hanlon believes the new rules will also limit the cycling of the puck in the offensive zone, a tactic that was a staple in the repertoire of some recent vintage Capitals teams.

"You used to be able to cycle." Hanlon remembers. "[Steve Konowalchuk, Ulf Dahlen and Jeff Halpern] were so great at cycling. Now I think it's more important to get one quick cycle and then funnel the puck towards the net and try to draw penalties. If you can penetrate what we call the ‘home plate' or the critical area, if you can get the puck out of the corner and get the puck and bodies toward the front of the net where it becomes very hard to defend, I think that is an important part of the game now."

Capitals goaltending coach Dave Prior sees the enforcement of the obstruction rules and the movement of the goal line back two feet as the changes that will make the most difference in his area of expertise.

"The movement of the goal line does change things significantly," Prior asserts. "The plays out from behind the net will happen quicker on the goaltenders. The fact that you cannot hogtie a guy in front of the net, I expect the shooters to get off better shots in scrambles. They're not going to have defensemen draped all over them. Guys will be harder to move out legally. You are going to have to rely on body position to block out rebounds and be in the right place before it happens. It's hard to predict where a puck is going to come off a goaltender so I think there will be more opportunities around the front of the net and more opportunities for the shooters to get a better shot off.

"We're trying to keep that in mind and trying to go about our game and work on stuff with the team down low and have the goaltenders be very alert to what's happening. They have commented that it is very difficult to see shots coming through from the point. We have had a few go in off our defensemen, even. There are going to be people around the front of the net and more players willing to go to the front of the net who maybe didn't want to stand around there before. We're going to monitor it and see how it goes but screen shots are likely to happen with more regularity."

Prior's take has proved prophetic. All around the league, goals scored on deflections in front and on screen shots appear to be more plentiful than in past seasons.

Another direct result of the crackdown on obstruction is the resulting onslaught of power plays. Most goaltenders will tell you that time spent killing penalties exacts a greater physical tax on them. It takes a mental toll, too.

"I think you're going to see - at least initially - power play opportunities increase," says Prior. "And being able to defend them the traditional way no longer exists, so you are going to see a higher success rate at converting them into goals."

Kolzig concedes that penalty killing becomes all-important in the 2005-06 edition of the NHL.

"As a group, penalty killing obviously has to be something that we really need to work on," he states. "It looks like there are going to be a lot of power play and penalty killing situations this year. Your goaltender is usually your best penalty killer, so we've got to work on those situations."

Despite the changes in the dimensions of the rink, the crackdown on obstruction and the shrinking of the goalie equipment, Kolzig insists that his job has not changed.

"My job stays the same," he declares. "I have to play just to stop the puck. The defense has got to be a little more leery and not allow those big gaps where forwards can come through with speed and burn them. But at the same time, they can't be too [far] up because a guy can sneak behind them for the home run pass. It is going to be a big adjustment for the forwards and the defensemen. A goalie's job stays the same. No matter what kind of system you play or what kind of system the league plays, the goalie needs his defensemen to play a certain way.

"I think you have to be a little more patient as a goaltender. Players are going to come in basically untouched now. You just have to hold your ground as long as you can whereas before you relied on your defense to tie a guy up and not allow that guy to get to the net. Now as a goalie you have to hold your ground and not give up that area because the offensive players are going to be able to get that area a lot easier now."

As for the smaller goalie equipment, Kolzig believes it will hurt those whose equipment was "top heavy" and that smaller pads might actually add to a goaltender's lateral quickness.

"You actually move around the net a little better," says the Caps veteran netminder. "I think the biggest thing for goalies is the upper body. I think the guys that abused that are going to notice the big difference because everybody butterflies anyway. There might be a few more pucks that go over the top of the pad that normally you get a piece of but I think it's the upper body stuff. When guys go down there is going to be an inch or two less for them to cover and guys in this league are such good shooters that they will find that inch or two that's missing."

The flow and speed that the NHL hopes to reintroduce into the game is not likely to appear until players stop committing the obstruction fouls that too often have led to a dozen or more power plays a night around the league. It's admittedly a small sample size, but through the first week of the 2005-06 NHL campaign, 36.2% of all goals scored came on the power play. In 2003-04, 27.2% of all goals came on the power play.

Despite the increase in scoring and scoring chances, Kolzig believes the new wrinkles are good for the game.

"Obviously all the goalies are in the same boat," he admits. "We'd all love to keep our goals against right around 2.00 but I think those days are in the past. I think they are going to spike and I think it's healthy for the game. I think all of us in here are pretty much traditionalists and we liked the game it was. But we understand it was starting to get a little boring and they do need to generate some new excitement to bring those fans that we probably lost here in the U.S. during the lockout back and then bring some new fans in and create some excitement to the game like it was back in '94."

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