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    Tuesday, February 10, 1998

    It's a whole new game for NHLers

    By AL STRACHAN -- At The Olympics

      Hockey is hockey. But Olympic hockey is not NHL hockey.
     Over the next couple of weeks, Canadians watching the Olympic Games on television will be familiar with the players, but not with the way they're playing.
      Unfortunately, the NHL game has become one of restricted movement, of destruction rather than creation.
     But in the Olympics, with the larger ice surface, the approach differs significantly. We're not about to see a rebirth of the 1986 Edmonton Oilers, but we are about to see a markedly different style of play.
     The teams will still have to place an emphasis on defence. There's no other way to win a high-level tournament. And many teams will even try to use a neutral-zone trap.
     But there will be much more motion in this game, much less reliance on restricting the opposition's movement and much greater emphasis on positional play.
     In fact, there are so many differences between the two styles that they won't all fit into one article.
     Tomorrow, we'll deal with more specific areas and the ways Team Canada will have to adjust. Today, we'll touch on some of the general aspects of the Olympic game compared to the NHL game.
     Despite the occasional home-run pass, you'll see a lot more backward than forward passing. All European teams trap these days and a well-timed backward pass is a good way to crack the trap on a large ice surface.
     Watch for a defenceman to carry the puck up ice at a leisurely pace. Because of the trap's limited -- or non-existent -- pressure, he can do so. Then a forward will circle behind him and pick up speed.
     As the forward closes in, the defenceman makes the back pass and now the defenders, who have been moving slowly, are suddenly faced with a puck carrier who is flying.
     The idea of the trap is to defend the red line and then the blue line. But if you can't defend the red line because of a speed mismatch, and you can't defend the blue line because you can't get enough defenders back in time, the trap cannot be sprung.
     Another way to beat the trap is to have one defenceman fire a diagonal back pass to his partner just as the trap is closing in.
     Then, the pass receiver has an open lane to make a play. He'll make the head-man pass at that point, but the play starts with a back pass.
     These have become virtually obsolete in the NHL because most coaches would rather have their fingernails pulled out than risk a turnover.
     But the wider ice means wider seams in the defence, and with the right defencemen -- or even some forwards -- the first pass can be a killer, putting a lot of defenders in trouble.
     The smart players -- and there are lots of them in this tournament -- will take advantage of a quick turnover to fire a home-run pass to an equally smart teammate who was quick to recognize the opportunity.
     With the defencemen having to be more spread out to protect the boards in the wide rink, that up-the-middle seam is usually available.
     When the pass comes, it's like a lightning bolt because it usually arises off frantic action around the net. One of the defencemen creeps in and suddenly a ricocheting puck finds its way on to a defender's stick.
     Bang. It's fired up the middle and a team that was on the ropes a few seconds ago now has a clean breakaway. The fact that the opposition's best chances often come off your best chances is a very serious consideration in Olympic hockey.
     The NHL's referees take a lot of abuse in North America, but tournaments such as this serve as a reminder that they're the best in the world. Only three of them are here, however, and that means there's no guarantee that Team Canada will get an NHL referee in any given game.
     As a result, there will be some serious inconsistencies, not only in the obvious area of competence but also in the general approach.
     An NHL referee, who does this as a full-time job, will be more tolerant than a Finnish life-insurance salesman who works 30 games a year at a totally different level and suddenly finds himself in the Olympics. Team Canada, used to dealing with professionals, will have to make that adjustment.
     It's custom-made for the underdog. The first three games are irrelevant, serving no other purpose than to determine the matchups for the next round.
     But after that, it's a one-game showdown -- sudden elimination from gold-medal contention.
     All it takes is one bad referee, or a bad break, or a hot goalie, and you're gone.
     It's difficult to be an aggressive penalty killer here but it is possible. A few NHL teams allow their penalty killers to chase the puck carrier behind his own net, but no coach will allow that here.
     Penalty killers must be excellent skaters and quick -- as opposed to fast. Long-term speed isn't important. Quick, darting speed is.
     Intelligence is a major factor as well. You simply cannot allow yourself to get drawn out of position.
     The power-play specialists have a definite advantage in Olympic hockey because they get to spend more time in the attacking zone.
     For one thing, because of the width of the rink -- which is 15 feet wider than an NHL surface -- it's easier to get the puck into the zone.
     And once it's there, it's more difficult for the defender to get it out. The forward can often pick off a pass intended for the point man in the NHL, but here, with the wider rink, the defenceman has more room to move along the blue line. By doing so, he gives his teammates more options, so fewer passes are intercepted.
     With all the extra time in the zone, it stands to reason that the rate of power-play success will be higher.