THE EXPRESSION IS as old as hockey itself. "Crash the net" is an instruction every winger learns and practices from squirts to the pros, and the principle is simple. You skate as hard as you can toward the post on the other side of your wing, veering off at the last second.

At one point in the NHL's checked and checkered history, the veering was an important aspect of the principle. Otherwise you would run into the goalie, the net, or just roll up into the twine like a fly into a spider's web. And, of course, your goal would not count.

But that was in the girly man days of the NHL, back when you could hold each other at will, hook each other at will, before their eternally exhaustive and perversely entertaining rules were tinkered with again and again and again

"Before the lockout, it was all-out rugby out there," said Mike Knuble, in his 12th NHL season. "The holding, and hooking - I don't know how anybody scored. It was just hard to get around the ice."

Now it's up and down, shots galore, hard contact at high speeds - and crashing the net. Over the last few days of these first-round playoffs, we have seen three playoff games determined by goals involving some sort of contact with goaltenders.

Four times goalies were bumped, pushed or plowed. Four times the goals were allowed to stand.

"I guess the beauty of our game," said Knuble, "is the ugliness of it."

Once, not so long ago, it was a no-no to even set foot in that blue area around the net. "One of the worst rules in hockey," league disciplinarian Colin Campbell wrote on NHL.com the other day of the foot-in-the-crease rule. Campbell, the man who introduced "slew foot" to the American vocabulary as the Rangers' coach during the Eric Lindros era, now heads up "The Situation Room" blog on NHL.com.

This thing is funnier than anything comedian Mike Myers could concoct. Campbell's comments alone are worth a subscription fee. Besides ragging on his league's old rules, Campbell describes Flyers forward Daniel Carcillo as a "repeat offender" and writes, after choosing not to suspend players involved in a game-ending scrum between Boston and Montreal the other night that: "You've got to let the games unfold. You've got to let hockey be hockey, playoffs be playoffs. You've got to let the energy flow.

"And then, when they cross that line, you do what you have to do."

Rightly so, Mr. Ricochet . . .

But what do you have to do? Figuratively and literally, it would seem that Sid the kid crossed the line the other night. Maybe it was just me, but I think he was surprised his goal counted.

Anyway, here was "The Situation Room" explanation of why Sidney Crosby's goal was allowed: "Play was reviewed to determine if the puck was batted in by the glove of Pittsburgh forward Sidney Crosby . . . The review determined that the puck went off of Crosby's stick, then his body, there was no batting motion - call on the ice for good goal stands."

Yesterday, the Flyers were still digesting that. So were fans, and, yeah, me, too. Hockey's annual spring tournament is rivaled only by March Madness for its surprises and exciting endings. But among the nuances of sports, only the NBA salary cap is a greater irritant than the NHL's annual and seemingly unending tinkering with its own rules.

"I didn't think you could carry the puck in," Flyers goaltender coach Reggie Lemelin said. "To me whether it hit the stick or not is irrelevant . . . The rule I am not sure of is whether you can carry the puck into the net. I don't believe that you can."

You can't. But the long arm of "The Situation Room" extends only so far apparently. The referees on the ice had to call traveling on Sid and disallow the goal based on that. When they didn't - well, as they say in the provinces, "Bob's your uncle."

Well, Bob was Sid's uncle anyway. "It happened so fast," Mike Richards said. "You can't blame the refs for that. As fast as the game is, you miss things. I miss things. It's just a fast game."

So why not involve "The Situation Room"?

"Oh, I'm sure there'll be new rules," Richards said, laughing.

I'm sure of it, too. I mean, how can Richards get 2 minutes for incidental skate contact with Marc-Andre Fleury outside the crease and Crosby get a goal for plowing into the Flyers' net? If you can't touch the goalie when he's outside of the blue (unless he touches you first), why can you park on his lap as Joffrey Lupul did to Fleury earlier in the series?

The answer might be found in Campbell's "hockey be hockey, playoffs be playoffs" axiom, which sounds similar to something promoter Don King used to say about the only rules being that there are no rules.

"The Situation Room" would dispute this, of course. They are there to clarify the rules to us, to get it right, to help us better understand their game.

So, do we still spend so much time scratching our heads over some of the stuff that happens?

"Heck, sometimes even players are standing looking around like, 'What just happened?' " Knuble said. "And we're the ones living the game." *

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