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Product enhancement From checking a crack in the crackdown to using a bigger net, refinements considered to keep the highlights coming With scoring down, the league makes everything fair game

Last month, NHL Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell created a story when he suggested the league might eventually need to expand the nets. Naturally, goalies were the first in line to file complaints. Hadn't they suffered enough since the league opened up the game after the lockout?

Not really.

Some 18 months after the work stoppage, the league continues to comb through the rule book and investigate radical changes. Scoring is down from 6.1 goals per game last season to 5.8 this year. Penalties have decreased 13 percent. Larger nets remain a possibility, but Campbell insisted the bigger issue was scouring the effects of all rules.

"We still have to refine our game and keep changing whether we think it's perfect or not," Campbell said. "We have to be ready to adapt. I don't know if we need a bigger net or not. It was my way of saying that we have to keep looking at everything no matter how crazy those ideas might be."

Teams have adjusted to the new rules and tailored their defensive strategies. Last week, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff suggested officials were swallowing their whistles.

"We're considering everything," Campbell said. "We want to entertain the fans, and we want to make the game fun for the players to play."

The Sabres were the darlings of the Eastern Conference early in the season because they played an exciting, high-scoring style. They account for half the conference's starting lineup in the all-star game. The fact they have been slowed in recent months explains why they're concerned about enforcement.

"I'm hoping they keep the crackdown going the way they did all last year and the beginning of this year," Sabres center Daniel Briere said. "It's not as tight. You don't want the boring games to come back. Lately, watching the games from home, I've seen more [no calls] than I used to see. To be honest, I'm a little worried."

Still, most people agree the game is better than the clutch, grab and pillage style played before the lockout. Buffalo, Nashville and Anaheim are the class of the NHL, but there's more balance across the league. Fourteen teams were no worse than four points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Twelve teams in the West were no worse than eight points out of a playoff berth.

And the season hasn't been short on highlights going into the NHL All-Star Game on Wednesday night in Dallas. Here are a few of them:

>Biggest Surprise (Team)

Nashville Predators. They can't be considered a total shock after finishing in the Top Six last season, but who expected them to have the NHL's best record going into the break? The talk all season has been about Anaheim and Buffalo, but Nashville slipped past both teams last week.

>Biggest Disappointment (Team)

Philadelphia Flyers. How bad did things get in the City of Brotherly Love? Former General Manager Bob Clarke grew so tired of firing other people that he fired himself. This is not what injury-riddled center Peter Forsberg had planned when he signed a two-year contract. Big-ticket defensemen Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje have been total busts. Hatcher is too slow. Rathje might retire.

>Sid the Whiz Kid

Alexander Ovechkin might have been the top rookie last season, but you knew Sidney Crosby would eventually become the better player. Somehow, he's surpassed lofty expectations for this season. He's the most dominant player in the NHL and the early favorite to win the Hart Trophy.

>Hart Trophy Candidates

1. Sidney Crosby, Penguins. 2. Martin Brodeur, Devils. 3. Teemu Selanne, Ducks.

>Biggest Surprise (Player)

Garth Snow. Yes, the former backup goalie and Steve Shields' punching bag really did get bumped into the general manager's chair on Long Island. He's doing a decent job in his rookie year. Snow hasn't been afraid to make moves, shipping out defenseman Alexei Zhitnik for a younger version in Freddie Meyer.

>Biggest Disappointment (Player)

Martin Gerber. The Ottawa Senators were hoping he would be the answer in goal after Ray Emery fell apart in the playoffs and Dominik Hasek was set free. Gerber is making $3.7 million and had a 7-9-1 record with a 3.15 goals-against average and an .896 save percentage. His GAA was 35th, and his save percentage was 32nd.

>Bust of the Year

1. Gerber, Ottawa 2. Jeremy Roenick, Phoenix 3. Antero Niittymaki, Philadelphia.

>Best Save

Ryan Miller. Bruins defenseman Paul Mara should have four goals right now, not three. Miller made the best save of the season, a diving, Dominator-like stop with his stick that left the Bruins and the Sabres shaking their heads.

>Vezina Trophy Candidates

1. Martin Brodeur, New Jersey. 2. Roberto Luongo, Vancouver. 3. J-S Giguere, Anaheim.

>Most Lopsided Trade

Luongo to the Canucks for Todd Bertuzzi. Luongo started slowly but has been on a mission to get the Canucks into the postseason. He was second in the league in wins (27) and had started all but four games going into the break. Bertuzzi has been sidelined with back problems and has appeared in just seven games.

>Biggest Snub

The return of Ted Nolan, the last coach to lead the Sabres to a division title, was basically ignored by the organization. When Andy Murray returned with St. Louis to Los Angeles, the Kings thanked him for all he had done. The same happened when Carolina coach Peter Laviolette returned to Long Island.

>Most Overlooked Rookie

Anze Kopitar has 13 goals and 42 points, leaving him second in the league rookie scoring race behind Evgeni Malkin. He plays for a terrible Los Angeles team, which helps explain his minus-9 rating. Runner-up goes to Colorado winger Wojtek Wolski, who had 16 goals and 32 points.

>Biggest Blooper

Dallas winger Patrik Stefan had a breakaway with the goaltender pulled against Edmonton, lost control of the puck about five feet from the empty net and watched Edmonton tie the game on the ensuing rush in the final seconds. The Stars ended up winning the game, but Stefan's miscue became TV fodder across North America.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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