ICE HOCKEY: End of lock-out starts scramble

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The Independent Online
Having demonstrated that at least one side in the bitter 103-day National Hockey League lock-out actually loves the game at least as much as money, the players are set to return to the ice.

The truncated, 48-game 1995 season begins on Friday, presenting a unique set of circumstances and challenges that are sure to delight some and anger others. With half as many games, each contest takes on added significance in the scramble for places in the Stanley Cup play-offs.

"With a 48-game schedule, it's like the play-offs start with the first game. There's no time to lose," said the Montreal goaltender, Patrick Roy.

Lack of conditioning from the lengthy lay-off, combined with the anticipated high intensity of the games with fewer rest days between matches makes the risk of injury a particular concern for players and coaches, however.

"I'm pleased our players worked out before the settlement," said the St Louis coach Mike Keenan, who joined the Blues after leading the New York Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years last June.

"But one thing is for sure, I would suspect that most of the players in the league have a long way to go to be in top-game shape," he added.

"When everyone is in shape, games will be very important and very intense," the Rangers' general manager, Neil Smith, said.

Before the Rangers face Buffalo in the season's curtain-raiser on Friday night, the 1993-94 Stanley Cup banner will be raised at Madison Square Garden, a ceremony Smith feels will go a long way towards winning back the support of those New York fans angered by the near cancellation of the season.

"The glow will return on Friday night. I'm still very excited about raising the banner," Smith said. "After the fans waited 54 years, three months is nothing, a piece of cake."

Under the format announced by the NHL last week, the season, which concludes on 3 May, will be strictly an intra-conference affair. No Eastern team will meet a Western club before the Stanley Cup finals.

While the agreement saves travel time, not to mention expenses, it is sure to be a source of frustration to many as traditional rivalries, hotly anticipated reunions and expected visits by superstars go unfulfilled.

Eastern Conference fans will not be able to view the sport's leading lights - such as Wayne Gretzky, Pavel Bure, Brett Hull and Sergei Fedorov: and that could harm ticket sales. Western Conference clubs will not host Montreal - usually a sell-out fixture- nor will they be able to meet the defending champions. That is sure to disappoint the Vancouver faithful, eager to exact revenge against the team that ended their Stanley Cup dream last season.

Yet, as Smith points out, every game will be against an opponent vying for one of eight play-off places in each conference. "The 48-game intra-conference schedule will make every game a four-point game," he said.

There is good news, too, for supporters of the bridesmaid teams of the NHL, such as the Ottawa Senators and Hartford Whalers. They have yet to suffer a single defeat and there are only 48 games left.