NHL Season Opens Tonight!

No one uses the space behind the net for setting up goals better than Wayne Gretzky.

Now, Gretzky and other skill players will have even more room to operate in that area thanks to NHL rules changes for the 1998-99 season.

The Great One will be among the first to test the larger space behind the net when his New York Rangers play host to the Philadelphia Flyers in one of three NHL openers tonight.

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  • Among other things, the goal line has been moved from 11 to 13 feet from the end boards. At the same time, there will be less room in the neutral zone (54 feet) and more in the offensive zones (73).

    "It gives the offensive player an advantage because he has more room to make the play," Montreal Vincent Damphousse said. "It's tougher for the defenseman to pin the forward in the corner."

    "The guys who are going to be the most affected are goalies who like to move the puck. This is going to make it very difficult for them."

    In tonight's other games, San Jose plays Calgary in the opening of a two-game weekend series in Tokyo, Japan, and Tampa Bay plays at Florida. The defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings open in Toronto in one of 12 games on Saturday.

    Dallas Stars
    Brett Hull, center, joins a beefed-up Dallas Stars team that can make a run at the defending champion Red Wings. (AP)

    The new rules are part of the NHL's plan to increase scoring, which has been on the decline in the '90s. The goal crease also will be smaller, with hopes of cutting down on disallowed goals for skate-in-the crease infractions. The specifications of goalies' equipment has also changed, making it less bulky.

    Goalies feel they will be tested by the new rules.

    "I have to be careful leaving the net now," Rangers goalie Mike Richter said. "The rule is designed to give the skilled player more room to maneuver, and I think that's good for the game."

    Said Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils: "There is going to be a lot more play down low than before. On dump-ins, I've got that extra two feet to go, but the puck has to travel further, too. I'm just going to have to be smart because you don't want to go back there (behind the goal line) and not get it. And with the smaller neutral zone, there are going to be a lot more dump-ins."

    Gretzky, the NHL's career leading scorer, figures to make the extra space behind the net work for him. But coach John Muckler doesn't want Gretzky to forget his responsibilities on the other side of the ice.

    "John asked me to really concentrate on not always being behind the net and trying to stay back and being responsible," Gretzky said. "I think my role has changed a bit."

    The Florida-Tampa Bay game will feature the official opening of the National Car Rental Center, the Panthers' new $192 million home in Broward County.

    The Calgary-San Jose game will mark the second straight year that the NHL has launched the season with a weekend series in Japan. Last year, Anaheim played Vancouver as a precursor to the Olympics.

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