A whole new puck game

If you are going to watch NHL players play non-NHL hockey games in the Olympics, read this.

Here's why: The International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation have changed so many rules that getting the hang of playing on ice that much wider (officially, 15 feet, but the rink here is 131/2 feet wider) in only the start.

The biggest change is the elimination of the center red line for anything except icing. Two-line passes are not only allowed but encouraged in the hope of creating more offense and more flow, especially in the neutral zone.

The difficulty for North American teams will be adjusting to the wider rink and contending with cherry-picking opponents who sneak to the far blue line. "It's not how you take advantage of it," Canadian coach Pat Quinn said. "It's how you defend it."

The change is so new that even the European players, who are so at home on the bigger ice, will have to adjust to it.

"One of the times it'll come into play is on a [line] change and you can catch a team [off guard]," U.S. forward Bill Guerin said.

Much of the talk about this rule change concerned the home-run pass from, say, a defenseman at his own goal line to a forward at the opponents' blue line. But a more likely use of the rule will be in the neutral zone when a defenseman has the puck inside his own blue line.

In the NHL, the defenseman would have to take several steps to cross his own blue line, lest he make an offside pass. But in the Olympics, he can immediately fire the puck to a forward breaking at the other blue line and still be onside.

"It's something everybody had better be aware of," U.S. captain Chris Chelios said. "Having one defenseman back, that's going to be the key."

Another new rule is faster faceoffs. The puck will be dropped 15 seconds after the referee's hand goes up following a whistle. The visiting team will have five seconds to make a line change. The home team will have five seconds to make a line change. And the teams will have five seconds to line up. If you aren't ready, tough.

This will test coaches who take their time to match lines or defensive pairings and will reward teams with four solid lines of two-way depth.

"The coaches have to be sharp about who's up next," Chelios said. "Obviously, when you change on the fly, it won't make a difference, but you'd better know who's going up next and there's no messing around, just get out there."

That rule will reward fans with a faster pace, as will another change: no-touch icing.

It's just like it sounds: Once a puck shot from behind the center red line crosses the goal line, tweet. No defensive player has to skate back to touch it to make it official. Just hurry up and get ready for the faster faceoff.

Yet another new rule that helps the flow of the game is the tag-up rule on offsides. Instead of drawing a whistle when an offensive player is in the attacking zone while the defensive team has the puck, the attacking players merely have to clear the zone by tagging the blue line before they touch the puck. Play continues. Flow is maintained.

The last notable change affects the shootout, likely the most dramatic and exciting feature of international hockey. But befitting a group that always seems to be changing rules, the shootout changes in midround.

In the seeding round that will begin Friday for the so-called Big Six—the United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic—there will be no sudden-death overtime or shootout. A tie will be a tie for seeding purposes.

In the final round, teams that are tied after 60 minutes will play a 10-minute overtime. If the game is still tied, the teams will go to a shootout of five players each. If teams are still tied, they will alternate sudden-death shooters, with each team having an equal number.

If the gold-medal game is tied after 60 minutes, there will be a 20-minute sudden-death overtime. If the teams are still tied, a shootout will determine the winner.