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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Welcome back NHL!

Rather, nice to meet you NHL!

The NHL is back, but instead of a reunion, it’s more like a debut for the league and its players, coaches and fans.

You see, the “old” NHL of clutching, grabbing and thuggery died during the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. In its place, the “new” NHL of skating, speed and skill debuts Wednesday night in rinks around North America.

“I am really anxious to get going here,” said Penguins captain Mario Lemieux.

Lemieux, who turned 40 Wednesday, is rejuvenated with the changes the NHL made to return its game to a show of offense and skill instead of frustration and bogged-down defense. For years, Lemieux has begged the NHL to make rules changes as the game morphed from a fun, free-wheeling and offensive game in the 1980s to more of a boring display of clutching, grabbing and defensive trapping that slowed the sport to a turtle’s pace in the late 1990s and 2000s.

“It took a while, but I think it’s a nice change for everybody. Fans want to see better hockey and the talent to go out and play the way they can,” Lemieux said. “There’s a lot more open ice and you can make plays now, where before it was pretty difficult to get over the blue line at times. There’s a lot more flow and it’s going to reflect in a lot more scoring.”

Definitely, No. 66 – and others – should benefit from the rules changes. Now that the NHL has opened up its games and restricted its players from using their sticks like Zorro to interfere with, tie up or hack opponents and goalies, who had their equipment shrunk, no longer look like Godzilla between the pipes, the 100-point scorer will be resurrected from the realm of lore. Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis, who won the 2003-04 scoring title, didn’t even crack the 100-point barrier (he finished with 94 points).

Topping 100 points used to be common for elite players. A decade ago in the 1995-96 season, 12 different players topped the century mark – paced by Lemieux’s 161. Since that season, it has only been accomplished 11 – yes, 11 – times total: Lemieux (122) and Teemu Selanne (109) in 1997; Jaromir Jagr (102) in 1998; Jagr (127), Selanne (107) and Paul Kariya (101) in 1999; Jagr (121) and Joe Sakic in 2001; Peter Forsberg (106), Markus Naslund (104) and Joe Thornton (101) in 2003. There were no 100-point scorers in 2000 (Jagr led the league with 96), 2002 (Jarome Iginla, 96) and 2004 (St. Louis, 94). Prior to the strike-shortened 1994-95 season, the last NHL scorimg leader to tally less than 100 points came in 1968 when Stan Mikita registered 87 points.

However, Lemieux and other stars should have no problem accomplishing eclipsing the century mark this year.

“I think it’s going to make our jobs, as the stars, a little bit easier with the way the game is called now,” Lemieux said. “It’s a lot more exciting to play the game and it’s a lot more exciting for the fans.”

Of course, Lemieux will only produce if his health permits. He missed the final 72 games of the 2003-04 season with a hip injury, but he explains that the time off during the last season combined with the year of recovery he had during the lockout has helped him.

“I am used to these long layoffs,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much time you miss. You still have to prepare yourself and get in the best possible shape to play. It doesn’t matter if you miss six months or a year, you still have to put in the work.”

It’s clear that Lemieux is in fantastic shape.

“It’s a long season and there might be some ups and downs, but, so far, I am starting healthy,” he said.

Missing the entire season not only improved Lemieux’s health, but the league’s as well since it was able to implement rules changes and a new financial system that benefits every team and caps teams’ spending to produce a level playing field.

“It was hard to miss a year, but I think it was something we needed to do to fix the game and make sure all the teams had a chance to compete and play for the Cup,” said Lemieux, who doubles as the Penguins’ owner. “Now, we have a system that really allows that. You can spend in the mid-$30 (million range) and have a competitive team, whereas before you’d have teams spending $70 or $80 million and it didn’t matter if you spent $30 (million).”

The revamped financial landscape and the victory in the NHL Draft Lottery that gave the Penguins the chance to draft super-prospect Sidney Crosby allowed the franchise to make a huge free-agent splash. The Penguins added Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair, Mark Recchi, Andre Roy, Lyle Odelein, Steve Poapst and Ryan VandenBussche and traded for goalie Jocelyn Thibault. It changed the Penguins from a last-place team to a Stanley Cup contender.

“I think so. We’ve assembled a good group of guys to compete for the Cup,” Lemieux said. “Our goal is to make the playoffs and we’ll see once we get in there.”

The Penguins take their first step Wednesday night when they open the season in New Jersey.

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