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New NHL Schedule Is a Maze : Pro hockey: Complications, quirks and grueling trips abound. The shorter season means that pressure to succeed right away will be greater.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The NHL’s new motto is “Game on!”

For players, the motto might well be, “Game on . . . but how in the world did they come up with this schedule?”

It was decided long ago to keep competition within the conference, to create interest in playoff races. But figuring out a formula was complicated, because there are 12 teams in the Western Conference and 14 in the East.

Teams in the Pacific Division will play four games against each of the six Central Division teams. Pacific teams will play five games against each of their division rivals, except one team will be faced only four times.

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For the Kings, that means five games against Calgary, San Jose, the Mighty Ducks and Edmonton but only four against Vancouver. The Ducks will play Calgary, Vancouver, San Jose and the Kings five times but will face Edmonton four times.

It’s stranger in the Eastern Conference. Atlantic Division teams will play each of the other six in their division four times. They will face four Northeastern teams three times, and three Northeastern teams four times.

Northeast teams will play four games against each of their six division rivals, four against three Atlantic teams and three against the other four Atlantic teams.

The greatest impact of a short season will be on strategy. There will be no time to cruise, no time for late playoff drives.

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“My focus is going to be a playoff spot, nothing more,” said Toronto Maple Leaf Coach Pat Burns. “There’ll be no chance to think of where we finish--just get in there and pray we’re healthy and ready. Patience is out the window. I can’t afford to wait. If somebody’s not producing, sorry pal, you’re gone.”

The regular season was extended 24 days, to May 3, so teams will play 48 games in 104 days. The Kings will play 37 games between Jan. 20 and April 9, which was the final day of the regular season on the original schedule. Had the season gone as planned, they would have played 38 games between Jan. 20 and April 9.

The Mighty Ducks will play 36 games between Jan. 20 and April 9; they would have played 35 under the original schedule.

To clear up any confusion, the NHL has established a toll-free line providing schedule information and other services. That number is (800) NHL-FAN5.

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Locally, individual game tickets for King home games will be available at 10 a.m. today at all Ticketmaster locations and the Forum box office, and the Ducks will have tickets available Tuesday at the Pond box office and Ticketmaster outlets.

The Kings, who play seven of their first eight games at the Forum, will play on consecutive nights on 10 occasions this season. Their longest trip of the season is a five-game stretch, March 6-14.

“For so many years, the schedule has worked against us,” Wayne Gretzky said. “This is the one time we have to take advantage of it. There’s an advantage with us, Anaheim and San Jose. Our schedule isn’t as tough. A 48-game schedule is like a tournament.”

Said King Coach Barry Melrose: “The older players will benefit from not playing 84 games, 10 exhibitions and traveling across the United States 15 times.”

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The schedule features several and grueling trips:

--The Boston Bruins have an eight-game, 16-day trip in February that will take them to Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Florida, Tampa Bay, Hartford, New Jersey, Quebec and Ottawa.

--The San Jose Sharks must play six games in 10 nights, an odyssey that winds through Dallas, Winnipeg, Toronto, Detroit, Edmonton and Vancouver in February.

--The Edmonton Oilers will play two consecutive games at Dallas, on March 22-23.

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--The St. Louis Blues will play the Kings twice on one trip in March.

--The Dallas Stars don’t play at Reunion Arena until Jan. 30, and the New Jersey Devils don’t play at the Meadowlands Arena until Jan. 31, making them the last teams to make their home debuts.

The Stars, who play games at Calgary on Feb. 18 and 20 and have a five-game, eight-day trip through Chicago, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Anaheim and St. Louis in April, have chartered a plane to ease travel problems.

Eastern teams appear to have an advantage, simply because of geography. “Our travel is always bad, anyway,” Tampa Bay Coach Terry Crisp said. “Nobody has moved Tampa on the map, so it won’t be a factor. The only difference is that we’ll be fighting for position with a lot of teams that will be traveling by bus half the time.”

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* Staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this report.


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