There is great debate over whether the NHL went too far with its new overtime policies--four skaters per team, a point awarded for an overtime loss--but a general sense of agreement that the new crease rules have alleviated confusion.

The long delays as goals are reviewed are a thing of the past. No longer are the microscopic fibers of a skate blade being analyzed to determine whether a player was in the crease at the time a goal is scored. Brett Hull's controversial goal that won the Stanley Cup last spring ended the bedlam.

The league's new "no harm, no foul" rule for players being in the crease is a success. Players aren't complaining, officials are doing their jobs, and that dreaded phrase, "The play is under review," is becoming a thing of the past.

Even Florida General Manager Bryan Murray, who fiercely supported stronger crease measures a few years back, has changed his tune. "When we had 16 goaltenders hurt one year, I was on the committee that said, 'Protect the goaltenders,' " Murray said. "And a few years later we drafted video replay in and then it became too much--we were reviewing every goal.

"I do like it a lot better now. I still think goaltenders do get run out of the net the odd time, but the referee has to make that call."

The larger crease and narrower interpretation of it gave goalies, perhaps, too much freedom. They could hack and whack at opponents and get away with it. Skaters, meanwhile, were forbidden to enter the area closest to the net, where most goals are scored. Players still can't directly interfere with goalies, but accidental movement into the crease no longer is swaying the outcome of a game.

Rules Help Verbeek

The Detroit Red Wings already were loaded with power forwards Brendan Shanahan, Martin Lapointe, Darren McCarty, Tomas Holmstrom and Kirk Maltby, but shrewdly signed unrestricted free agent Pat Verbeek, a player with a penchant for scoring garbage goals and irritating goalies. That's just the kind of player who should thrive under the new crease rules. So far, Verbeek is third in the NHL in plus-minus (plus-17 through his first 20 games) and has five goals and 15 points.

"I think it's really helped those types of players," Detroit General Manager Ken Holland said. "A big part of their game is to run interference, go to the front of the net and create traffic, score tip-ins and deflections and rebounds and draw a crowd. It's the way hockey was meant to be played."

Oilers Antics

The Edmonton Oilers had some interesting things going on last week while the Capitals were in town. General Manager Glen Sather hyped a sparring match between enforcer George Laraque and team fitness coach Daryl Duke, a former world-ranked kick boxer. The bout quickly deteriorated into a wrestling match and Laraque took a thumb in the eye, causing him to miss the game. That night, goalie Bill Ranford left the game after being injured by a shot from Ken Klee. Floyd Whitney, the 40-something father of ex-Oiler Ray Whitney, was paged. (The Edmonton policeman is the team's emergency goalie and often practices with the team). Within five minutes, the training staff had his name and number on an Oilers' sweater and he sat in his equipment for two periods, hoping to get the call. With Edmonton leading 6-2 late in the game, Coach Kevin Lowe said he debated using Whitney, but didn't want to rub it in on the Capitals.

Something About Anna

Now that teenage tennis star Anna Kournikova has left longtime boyfriend and Red Wings center Sergei Fedorov for Florida winger Pavel Bure, the Panthers hopes she brings them the same luck she brought to Detroit. Fedorov's Wings won two Cups with her in attendance. With Kournikova making regular appearances at his games, Bure has points in nine straight games. His 21 goals in 25 games is the best ratio in the NHL.

Other Notes

The Capitals and the expansion Atlanta Thrashers are the only teams with just one player with double-digit goal totals. . . . Of the 14 players tied for the league lead in short-handed goals, four are rookies, including Washington's Jeff Halpern. . . . New Jersey Devils rookie Scott Gomez, who got his first NHL hat trick Sunday, leads his peers in virtually every offensive category and the 20-year-old leads the Devils in points, despite playing primarily on the third line.

CAPTION: Rules changes have nipped problems such as this last season, when Stars' Brett Hull (22) was in crease as he scored Stanley Cup winner.