New-look NHL has returned

Hockey fans, say Hallelujah! After a 301-day lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season, play has resumed in the National Hockey League.

True sports fans who appreciate the skill, class and bravery that most professional hockey players exhibit are glad to know that a six-year agreement with the owners was approved, and the results couldn't have come out any better. The NHL produced numerous excellent changes that improved their game.

With many of the owners losing money, a salary cap needed to be enforced. It has been agreed that player salaries will not exceed 54 percent of league-wide revenues. The owners made out like bandits in this deal, especially when you factor in the immediate 24 percent rollback on all player salaries, but it clearly was done for the eventual good of the game.

The salary cap naturally creates parity. Even loyal hockey fans will have a hard time recognizing teams, as almost 25 percent of the players have switched cities. As many as 12 clubs appear to have a legitimate shot at capturing the coveted Stanley Cup, and few squads are sure-fire cellar dwellers, which keeps most fans happy.

Next, the schedule format has been changed in order to generate more fan interest. Teams will face division foes eight times during the regular season, and participate in only 10 interconference games. This will build more heated rivalries, which are certain to fill more seats.

The best improvements came in rules changes designed to increase scoring. Goaltenders' equipment size was reduced by 11 percent, and more restrictions apply as to where they can touch the puck. The blue lines have been pushed back four feet further from the goals, and the red line will factor only in icing infractions, drastically reducing the amount of off-sides two-line passes. If a team does ice the puck, it is not allowed to change players before the next face-off. And, if anyone shoots the puck directly over the glass in his own defensive zone, it results in a penalty.

Those are all good changes. But if the NHL had strictly enforced the long-existing rule of obstruction, scoring would have gone up years ago. The holding and hooking of star players was ruining some of the action. This year the league promises many more penalties for offenders, opening up the scoring in an already exciting sport.

Predictions - Increased parity causes difficulty in making picks, but here goes:

Eastern Conference division winners - Boston, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.

Other playoff teams - Ottawa, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Toronto.

Western Conference division winners - Calgary, San Jose and Detroit.

Other playoff teams - Vancouver, Nashville, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Dallas.

Stanley Cup Finals - Calgary over Boston.

Notes - Dreaded regular season ties have been eliminated by shootouts at the ends of games, which count as an extra goal also in sports book sides and totals.

Hockey is televised on the Outdoor Life Network, but avid hockey fans will get the NHL Center Ice package.

• Major League Baseball picks - As of Wednesday evening, the choices from last week were all looking decent except for Boston. We're going with Houston in 3, St. Louis in 4, Los Angeles in 5 and Boston in 5.

World Series - Houston over Los Angeles.


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