Despite all the self-imposed secrecy, New York Rangers coach Roger Neilson didn't tinker much with the system.
The Rangers opened the season Friday night with Mark Messier happily centering the same line he had last season _ Adam Graves to his left, Tony Amonte to his right. The usual Brian Leetch-Jeff Beukeboom defensive duo started behind them, and for the first time, Mike Richter opened in goal. But that didn't come as too much of a surprise.
Then again, why fool with a franchise that was the best in the NHL last year, for the regular season, at least. What worked for 50 victories last season will probably work again, right? It certainly looked that way Friday night.
Staked to a 2-1 advantage in the first period, the Rangers held the lead for the rest of the contest, notching a 4-2 victory over Washington on goals from Amonte, Graves, Mike Gartner and one new face _ Phil Bourque.
Bourque, signed as a free agent from Pittsburgh during the off-season, took a swooping pass from Amonte midway through the third period and fired in his first goal as a Ranger, a score that gave New York a 3-1 lead.
After Washington responded with a goal from Calle Johansson, Graves added insurance in the waning minutes of the game.
All week, Neilson had been mum when it came to the details of his game plan. For the majority of the game, though, the Rangers' first three lines _ those centered by Messier, Gartner and Darren Turcotte _ were cookie-cutter representations of what the team played most of last season.
No one was assessed a major penalty under the league's stricter anti-fighting rules. Actually, no one even fought. Despite the new "No Helmets Required" edict by the league, the only bareheaded player on the ice was Washington's Rod Langway, who had an exemption from the old helmets-required rule and has played without one his entire career.
The biggest change for the Rangers was the increased use of Doug Weight, who had by far the best training camp on the team. Weight, who centers a fourth line featuring Bourque and Joe Kocur, was mixed in on the second line at times and played on the power play.
The biggest surprise for the Rangers was the absence of highly touted rookie Alekei Kovalev, who was scratched for the game. Neilson said that Kovalev, who signed an estimated five-year, $2.5-million contract only five days earlier, would have to play his way into the lineup, like any other rookie.
The 4-on-4 is back
The NHL decided in 1985 that if no team could keep up with the Edmonton Oilers, it would have to take action to even things out.
The Oilers had won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1984 and 1985 and finished runner-up in 1983, largely because no one could stop their legion of highly skilled players. When guys such as Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey got the puck _ and a little room to skate _ they could score almost at will. The NHL realized the only way to slow them down was to take away their most reliable technique, the 4-on-4.
The league voted in 1985 to allow teams to remain at full strength when opposing players received simultaneous minor penalties. It didn't drastically affect the Oilers, who went on to win three more Stanley Cups. It did remove a playing situation that made the game faster and more exciting.
Now that the Oilers of old have gone their separate ways, the NHL has decided to bring back 4-on-4 _ and with it, the league hopes, some of the speedy skating and pretty goals it can create.
"For the Oilers, a 4-on-4 was like a power play with the guys they had on those teams," said Minnesota North Stars Bobby Smith. "I think taking it out was a backlash to their success. It's good that it's back. With eight skilled players on the ice, and lots of room to operate, we'll see some exciting hockey."
And that, naturally, is the name of the game. The NHL restored 4-on-4 as part of a package of rule changes designed to give hockey's stars greater freedom, thus giving fans more thrills.
Four-on-four will reward teams with lots of highly skilled players: the fast skaters, crisp passers, smooth puck-handlers and sharp shooters. Having fewer players on the ice gives the fastest skaters the space to race down and set up pretty plays. That creates more scoring chances and probably more goals _ which owners hope will attract more fans.
That doesn't mean teams will throw their four best offensive players onto the ice and turn them loose. Four-on-four requires different strategies, which teams will have to develop to make the most of increased scoring opportunities.
"When you're playing 5-on-5, if you reach the blue line and square off, you look to advance the puck," Stars coach Bob Gainey said. "You dump it in. But 4-on-4, if you don't see a proper entry into the zone, you keep the puck. Possession is the priority, where territory is the priority when you're 5-on-5."