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It sounds like a simple idea: keep the skaters away from the goaltenders as much as possible, so that the goalies can do their job without added risk of injury.

Yet the National Hockey League has been struggling for the past few years about how to write a rule that will accomplish that goal. You might recall that last season the rule stated that offensive players could not be in the crease when a goal was scored -- with a few well-publicized if confusing exceptions. When the referee wasn't sure about a particular play, the video replay judge gave the final ruling.

This year, the video judge is out of the picture. It will be up to the referee to determine whether an opposing player interfers with a goalie's ability to make a save. If a player does interfere, a goal won't be counted. The new rule is close to a throwback to the old standard of a few years ago, when video replay was not used.

"I think it is also important to point out that we will have goals scored with players in the crease (this season)," said Bryan Lewis, the league's director of officiating. "The key component is that they are not interfering with the goalie and his ability to do his job."

For example, let's hypothetically say that Dallas Stars forward Brett Hull knocks a puck under diving Buffalo Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek and into the net. Referee Terry Gregson might see Hull's left skate go into the crease just before the shot is taken, but he decides that Hull did not interfere with Hasek's chance of making a save. Under the old rule, the referee would check upstairs to see if the circumstances met an exception to the "no goals with a skate in the crease" rule. Under the new rule, the goal counts.

"In theory, we should be headed in the right direction," Sabres forward Dixon Ward said. "I like the change. I don't know if I like what brought about the change. There were circumstances that surrounded the change. I think it's a little more sensible now the way it's written in the rule book, but we all know that the rule book can be interpreted in many different ways."

Administrators draw up these rules, and then players and coaches figure out how to play with them. In this case, some of the Sabres believe that goal production will go up because of the change in the crease rule -- and not simply because some of the 137 goals that were disallowed after video review last season will count this time around.

"It will be an advantage to every forward," Hasek said. "They can go closer to me, closer to the post. They don't have to be afraid to have a foot in the crease if they don't interfere with me. I'm positive there will be more goals this year because the players can go closer to you."

While the NHL wouldn't mind an increase in offense this season, it would prefer that contact with the goalies not be the main reason why. Based on the exhibition season, goalies will be touched more this season than last season.

"I worry about that," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who has the league's best goalie in Hasek and therefore would prefer as little traffic as possible around him on the ice. "I think the message being sent is that it's all right to go in the crease again. I think that's going to lead to a lot of confrontations. We saw (Dan) Cloutier of Tampa Bay snap and give Dixon Ward a two-hander (a slash) over the back of the head. There's an example of that, and there will be more."

NHL officials probably will have to keep a close eye on collisions between skaters and goalies, particularly early in the season in order to set a tone. If a tough standard is kept, Hasek doesn't believe the new rule will lead to more injuries or problems.

"The referee has to see if a player goes in the crease on purpose, to touch him or hurt him," he said. "I used to play with this rule for nine years in the Czech Republic and six years here. I don't think it will be any different."

The change in judging crease violations and the reduction of skaters in overtime -- teams will skate four on four -- are the only major rules alterations in the league this season. Minor alterations include requiring faster changes of skaters before faceoffs and removing the minor penalty for picking up an illegal stick on the ice.

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