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The American Hockey League opened last week, prepared to put the best hockey in North America on display during the upcoming months.
That lofty AHL status could remain in effect for most of or even the entire season, based on the ominous outlook for the National Hockey League lockout.
The best of the AHL teams just might be in Binghamton. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton also has potential to become a factor.
Binghamton returns the four leaders of its trip to the 2003 Calder Cup semifinals. Forwards Jason Spezza and Antoine Vermette and goalie Ray Emery were AHL all-rookie selections that season while joining veteran defenseman Brian Pothier in leading the way for the Senators.
Spezza, who certainly would have been in the NHL this season, is the logical preseason choice for best player in the AHL.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton opened the season Wednesday with 16 players back from last season's Calder Cup finalist. Despite the return of those prospects, including goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Andy Chiodo and defenseman Ryan Whitney, the Penguins fell twice to Binghamton in the preseason after winning their first three games.
As was the case last season, both teams enter the 2004-2005 season regarded as among the best in the entire league.
The upgraded caliber of play is not all that will be different in the AHL this season.
The fact that winners are being determined in every game and the way winners will be determined in the standings are the most drastic changes in the AHL. There will, however, be many other rule changes being evaluated with an eye toward revamping the low-scoring NHL whenever it does make its return.
Rule changes that are received favorably without damaging the integrity of the sport have a strong chance to be added to the NHL in the future.
The trend toward lower-scoring games has led to more ties in recent seasons, even with five-minute, sudden-death overtime periods.
The most drastic rule change will bring an end to the regular-season tie. The AHL will use a shootout to decide games that are tied after sudden-death overtime.
Each team will get five attempts to score on a breakaway from the red line in a shootout. The visiting team goes first and shooters alternate in an order determined by the coaches before the shootout starts.
Once a team has mathematically clinched, the shootout ends and the team is declared a winner. If the teams are equal after five shots, the shootout proceeds in sudden-death rounds until a winner is decided. Shooters in the sudden death must come from the original five shooters.
Goals and goaltending results in shootouts will not count in official statistics.
The shootouts, however, will result in another column in hockey's already complex standings.
A team that wins a shootout to decide a game that was tied at 2-2 will be declared a 3-2 winner regardless of the number of goals scored during the shootout.
An "SOL" column for shootout losses will be added to the standings. Standings will be kept in a W-L-OTL-SOL order. All wins will be worth two points. Overtime and shootout losses will be worth one point. Regulation losses will not produce any points.
Before overtime and shootouts are necessary the game will be played with other new wrinkles.
Tag-up off-sides, no-touch icing and additional neutral zone space will be part of the game.
Rather than a delayed off-sides call, skaters will have a chance to exit the offensive zone to "tag up" and re-enter.
Icing will be called immediately rather than waiting for a defensive skater to reach the puck.
Even if the NHL returns at some point, this will be a season of change in the AHL.
WEEK IN REVIEW
The AHL season opened in Wilkes-Barre for the fifth straight year. For the fourth time in those five years, the Penguins lost.
They turned in a particularly disappointing effort in a 6-3 loss to the Manitoba Moose, one of five teams that had a perfect AHL preseason.
"It was just a bad effort; a dumb effort," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "We played about as dumb as a team can play."
The Penguins proved that they still do not have an answer for Wade Flaherty.
The 36-year-old goalie had considered retirement after earning the Most Valuable Player Award for leading the Milwaukee Admirals to the Calder Cup title.
Instead, Flaherty signed with the Vancouver Canucks and was assigned to Manitoba. Flaherty came off the bench for the Moose to save all 15 shots he faced while his teammates rallied for four straight goals.
Ramzi Abid scored unassisted goals for the Penguins' first score of the season and the 3-2 lead. He has three unassisted goals after three games, but the Penguins have lost all three while giving up an average of six goals per game.
Binghamton also lost its opener, falling 6-2 in Albany Friday.
The Senators, however, recovered to win their home opener.
Vermette had a goal and two assists while Emery made 35 saves as the Senators defeated Syracuse, 4-1, before a crowd of 4,710.
Professional basketball came to Wilkes-Barre Thursday night and while Allan Houston rested his aching left knee, Jamal Crawford showed the New York Knicks that they do have other back-court options.
Crawford, an offseason acquisition from the Chicago Bulls, made his Knicks debut by leading a second-half comeback for a 92-84 victory over the New Jersey Nets in the National Basketball Association exhibition opener for each team.
"There were definitely some butterflies putting on a New York uniform," Crawford said. "Once the game started they went away."
Crawford's energy level, however, never diminished. The 6-foot-5 guard from Michigan was the busiest player on a night when New Jersey coach Lawrence Frank did not play anyone more than half the game and New York coach Lenny Wilkens played 11 other Knicks between 10 and 29 minutes.
The exception was Crawford, who played 36 minutes and scored a game-high 19 points.
"I just try to provide energy," Crawford said. "If the guys play off of that, great.
"Energy is contagious, both positive and negative."
Wilkens saw the positive energy Crawford was providing in the second half and played him for all but two minutes.
"He's new. I wanted him to get used to the guys," Wilkens said. "I didn't know he was going to play that much.
"I liked the way that group was playing. He was getting people involved and was playing great."
Crawford and Trevor Ariza ran the floor while Michael Sweetney and Vin Baker took over inside as the Knicks scored 23 straight points to erase a 13-point, second-half deficit.
The streak started on Crawford's two free throws in the final minute of the third quarter. Crawford opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer from the left corner as the Knicks scored 21 more on the way to an 84-74 lead with 3:41 remaining.
Baker had six points while Crawford, Ariza and Sweetney had five each during the streak.
Crawford, who scored 50 points in one game for the Bulls in April at Toronto, averaged a career-high 17.3 points last season. He came to the Knicks in an August 5 trade for Frank Williams, Othella Harrington, Dikembe Mutombo and Cezary Trybanski.
In his New York debut, Crawford was just 4-for-13 from the floor, but he was 3-for-7 on 3-pointers and 8-for-8 from the line. He grabbed seven rebounds, dished out a game-high six assists and made a pair of steals.
Kurt Thomas hit all seven shots from the floor while adding 14 points for the Knicks.
U.S. Olympian Richard Jefferson led the Nets with 18 points in 24 minutes.
In high school golf, unbeaten Montrose advanced with one Lackawanna League playoff win, but then had a semifinal match with North Pocono stopped because of rain. The semifinal was scheduled to be played Monday.
In high school football, both Susquehanna and Montrose lost divisional games in the rain on the road Friday night.
Christopher Felter ran for the only touchdown as the Sabers were tied with Lackawanna Football Conference Division I leader Riverside in the second quarter before falling, 20-7. Susquehanna remained within a touchdown until the fourth quarter.
Carbondale defeated Montrose, 12-8, as runs by Zach Lasavage set up both scores.
Montrose's Tara Chiarella finished first in the unseeded varsity girls' race during the 40th annual McQuaid Invitaitonal at Rochester.
Each race in the event had about 250-300 runners.
Montrose finished 14th of 26 teams in the girls' race. Chiarella finished in 18:53 to win by eight seconds and Jeanne Roszel was 14th in 19:57.
The Montrose boys were 29th of 36 teams in the A-2 boys' race.
Kevin Lee placed 42nd as Susquehanna came in 27th of 30 teams in the unseeded boys' race.
The Susquehanna junior high girls' team finished second out of 28 teams in the small school race.
Three Pennsylvania teams led the way. Wellsboro won with 79 points. Susquehanna was second with 107, well ahead of Troy with 161.
Alex Kotran was 12th in 9:56 and Sydney Carmody was 17th in 10:02 for the Lady Sabers. Susquehanna was 11th of 28 teams in the small school junior high boys' race.
Aaron Soden was 30th and Justin Lee was 55th.
Blue Ridge graduate Kelly Driscole helped the Lycoming College women's soccer team set a school record for most goals in a game when she scored the final goal of an 8-0 romp over Lincoln University.
Driscole, a junior who can play midfield or defense, made the most of her first playing time of the season. She got off five of Lycoming's 47 shots and scored the first goal of her career.
Lycoming started the season with a trip to London and Wales where the Lady Warriors faced three English college teams.
Driscole played 10 games, including two as a starter, as a freshman. She appeared in one game last season.
The win over Lincoln was the sixth straight for Lycoming, which has since extended the winning streak to seven games to improve its overall record to 10-2-1.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Susquehanna and Montrose are both on the road again Friday for Lackawanna Football Conference divisional contests. Montrose (2-5) is at Scranton Prep (3-4) while Susquehanna (0-7) is at Mid Valley (3-4).
This week's predictions, with winners in CAPS, are: SCRANTON PREP 25, Montrose 12; MID VALLEY 43, Susquehanna 14; HONESDALE 21, West Scranton 3; SCRANTON 32, North Pocono 17; DUNMORE 19, Carbondale 0; DELAWARE VALLEY 34, Valley View 8; LACKAWANNA TRAIL 26, Old Forge 18; ABINGTON HEIGHTS 16, Wallenpaupack 8; RIVERSIDE 34, Bishop O'Hara 12.
Our predictions were 8-2 last week, bringing out season record to 63-12 (84.0 percent).
TOM ROBINSON writes a weekly local sports column for the Susquehanna County Transcript. He can be reached on-line at RobbyTR@aol.com.
JOHNSON Wins, But Gains Few Points
Concord, NC Jimmie Johnson and his teammate Jeff Gordon finished 1-2 in Sundays UAW-GM Quality 500, but the win did not help Johnson gain much ground in the Chase For the Championship.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 8 Budweiser team, driving a Chevrolet suited in a special Major League Baseball World Series paint scheme, finished third, while points leader Kurt Busch was fourth.
The finish cut into Kurt Buschs point lead, but only by five points as the series leader avoided several incidents to finish fourth. With five races to go, Busch now holds a 24-point advantage over Dale Jr. Busch and Earnhardt remain the only drivers to record top-10 finishes in each of the five Chase races.
Johnson moved up one spot, but he is still 227 points out of first.
"We still have hopes [for the championship] but it's out of our control," he said. "It's going to require that the No. 8 and the 97 to have some bad luck. Right now, with a lot of the drivers having one bad race, maybe a top-five is a realistic goal that we can control as a team by four performances on the racetrack."
Jeff Gordon was involved in two separate incidents but still managed to finish second.
"It was a really up-and-down day," said Gordon. "We started off the race and that wreck happened in Turn 1. We seemed to get the worst of it. All the points guys were right there around us. That was disappointing to fall that far behind to fix some damage."
With his third-place finish, Dale Jr. was able to gain five points.
"Im pleased with this," said Dale Jr. "We had a pretty good car a car I thought was a second-place car to the 9 (Kahne) car. We tried a couple of things, but I didnt let (the team) free up the car enough. That kind of timid attitude didnt allow us to keep up with the race track, because the track tightened up a lot at the end. We had a real good pit stop at the end, and it got us a top-five, so it was a pretty good night. This kind of track is what weve struggled on, but it looks like weve improved."
Busch maintained his lead by a fourth-place finish.
"It was an awesome job," he said. "I really don't know what to say except this is our best finish ever at Charlotte. And to be able to do this with dodging so many obstacles, it was the adventure of Kurt Busch and team today."
Chase For The Championship With Five Races Remaining: 1. Busch-5850, 2. Earnhardt Jr.-5826, 3. J. Gordon-5776, 4. Sadler-5693, 5. Martin-5664, 6. Stewart-5646, 7. Kenseth-5635, 8. Johnson-5623, 9. Newman-5579, 10. Mayfield-5501.
From my viewpoint, only three drivers have a shot at this years championship; Busch, Earnhardt Jr., and Jeff Gordon. The others must wait until 2005.
Give JUNIOR Back His Points, Say Fans By now almost all fans are aware that NASCAR fined Dale Jr. $10,000 and took away 25-points for uttering what they termed a curse word in victory lane after winning the EA Sports 500 at Talladega, on Sunday, Oct. 3.
We received 468 responses. Only three said they felt like his points should have been taken away. Probably 98 percent thought the fine was sufficient.
"Right after the interview with Junior, Dale Jarrett said a curse word, and nothing was done to him." M.H. Lugoff, SC.
"I feel like NASCAR was wrong. He did not say the S word in anger, he was just excited. Let the drivers win on their own merit. Let the drivers be drivers and human beings, not robots that are controlled by NASCAR." S.O. Roxboro, NC.
"We feel like Dale Jr was punished much too harshly. Judge his driving, not the slip of his tongue after a race he won on his own merits." D. H. Selinsgrove, PA.
"I have heard worse words on cartoons. I do not blame him for saying what he feels. I followed Dale Sr. before he was killed, and I follow Dale Jr. His dad would be proud of him." B. E. Camden, SC.
"Some words are uncalled for, and some actions when drivers are mad, but this was after the race was over. It would be a real shame if this one word cost him the championship. NASCAR was wrong." J. K. Port Trevorton, PA.
"This is like a 25-year prison sentence for speeding. These men are in their machines for four hours at 200 mph. When they get wrecked or win, and step out of the car, a microphone and camera is shoved in their face. Their mind is still focused at running 200 mph, with their life hanging by a thread.
"I am surprised they control themselves as well as they do.
"Nextel has NASCAR change the rules to suit their business needs. In my opinion, they are destroying everything good Winston created." R. M. Camden, SC.
"The Earnhardt name has brought a lot of money and popularity to NASCAR. Junior earned those points on the track. Its not like he hits people when he loses like Tony Stewart, and other sore losers. Give him a break NASCAR, and give him back his points." J. G. Montrose, PA.
"Fine him, yes, but taking away points in a 10-race championship is unfair. I am totally disgusted with this whole mess." J. B. Towanda, PA
"He was just excited and it slipped. Everybody knows that. !!!t happens," V. S. Roxboro, NC.
"I have heard my husband use stronger words in excitement." A. P. Redfield, NY.
"I think it was totally outrageous that points were taken away for such a small infraction." S. W. Stevensville, PA.
"What Junior did was wrong, but the race was over, and he was very excited. They could have made a stiffer fine, but taking away points was wrong." C. P. Eaton, OH.
"I know NASCAR needs rules and drivers must adhere to them, but this is ridiculous." S. P. Camden, SC.
"If I didnt like the rough and tumble of NASCAR, I would have went to a Cub Scout meeting. We are all adults, and yes, sometimes S--- happens." M.R. New Paris, OH.
"I think NASCAR did the right thing when they fined and took away the points. He seems to think he should have special treatment." S. M. Lewisburg, OH.
We apologize for not giving more comments, but this is all that space would allow.
2005 Is Final Championship Year For MARTIN Mark Martin, driver of the No. 6 Viagra Taurus, announced that the 2005 season will mark the final time he will race for the Nextel Cup.
"Obviously, this is a tough day for us, but, at the same time, I think that there are great times to come," said Martin. "First of all, I'd like to stress that I am not announcing retirement today, but 2005 will be my final year to race for the Nextel Cup. I don't have 2006 plans totally in order yet, but, certainly, I look forward to continuing driving race cars. Hopefully, I'll have a little bit more time on my hands."
Martin moved to Roush Racing in 1988 and has been with the team ever since.
"My association with Mark has been made up of keeping the faith in one another and carrying on the good fight against all who would challenge us," said Jack Roush. "My enduring relationship with Mark has been the proudest accomplishment of my business life. Perhaps most importantly, Mark has been the second brother I never had, the best friend and the cornerstone of the effort to which I pursued my own competitive ambitions."
BUSCH Series Points Leaders 1. Truex-4367, 2. Busch-4223, 3. Biffle-3892, 4. Leffler-3661, 5. Hornaday-3660, 6. D. Green-3648, 7. Keller-3565, 8. Bliss-3499, 9. K. Wallace-3227, 10. Lewis-3193.
CRAFTSMAN TRUCK Series Leaders 1. Hamilton-3098, 2. Setzer-3019, 3. Musgrave-2933, 4. Edwards-2925, 5. Crafton-2762, 6. Chaffin-2740, 7. Starr-2726, 8. Kvapil-2717, 9. Park-2640, 10. Sprague-2637.
The Nextel Cup and Craftsman Trucks make their second visit of the season to Martinsville, while the Busch Series is at Memphis.
Saturday, October 23, Craftsman Trucks Kroger 200, race 22 of 25, 200 laps/105 miles, 1 p.m. TV: Speed Channel.
Busch Series Sams Town 250, race 30 of 34, 250 laps/187 miles, 3:30 p.m. TV: TNT.
Sunday, October 24, Nextel Cup Subway 500, race 32 of 36, 500 laps/263 miles, 12:30 p.m. TV: NBC.
Racing Trivia Question: Which Cup team has John Andretti signed to drive for in 2005?
Last Weeks Question: Should NASCAR crack down on road rage among its drivers?
Well give you results of what readers say next week. Answer. Most drivers dont like it, and neither do the fans. NASCAR says they are going to crack down on driver retaliation.
Gerald Hodges/the Racing Reporter is a syndicated NASCAR columnist. You can read additional racing stories by Hodges at www.race500.com.
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