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Monday, January 10, 2005; Page D02

The Washington Capitals stormed to the Southeast Division title by posting the league's best record, largely because the game's top general manager -- me -- acquired all-stars Martin St. Louis, Ilya Kovalchuk and Joe Sakic in an attempt to bring the District its first Stanley Cup.

The biggest story in the NHL is unfolding in an unlikely place: my family room. Thank goodness for video games, because it's the only way the NHL is going to be on television any time in the near future. Nothing stops the continuity of video game sports, not even an owners' lockout, which is why ESPN NHL 2K5 ($19.99 for PlayStation2 and Xbox) is the best -- and only -- thing professional hockey has going for it right now.

NHL 2K5 has a Franchise Mode where you can start a team, complete with a minor league affiliate and a staff of scouts that finds the most talented players in the world to help you win the Stanley Cup, which is displayed in your skybox along with items you earn by winning games, such as retro jerseys.

But NHL 2K5's game play is what sets it apart. It's extremely difficult to skate from one end of the rink to another without the opponent sending you crashing into the boards with an improved checking system that allows you to pin a player momentarily to the glass.

And you can fight back. It's no longer standing toe-to-toe with and swinging away; now you can grab your opponent and throw combinations of punches that drop him to his knees.

The game emphasizes passing. Users can control a player who does not have the puck, which allows you to move into optimum scoring position to receive a pass instead of hoping your computer-controlled teammate is smart enough to find the soft spot in the defense.

Though the commentary of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement doesn't always coincide with what's happening on the ice, the flaws of ESPN NHL 2K5 are minimal, making this as close as you'll get to the real thing for the time being.

-- Jon Gallo

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