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Lessons Learned at Rinkside

A fan recounts the controlled frenzy of a pro-hockey playoff game - and offers pointers

THERE'S nothing leisurely about a National Hockey League playoff game.

Imagine watching a crucial last out in the World Series: All the tension and excitement of an entire game is played out in a final moment. Now multiply the intensity of that moment by 60 and you have the controlled frenzy of professional ice hockey.

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Starting with the puck dropping, a referee fleeing for his life, and a flurry of slapping sticks, a game often ends with a pile of elated players at one end and the opposing goalie sunk to his knees at the other, dejected at having let the winning goal slip by. It's nonstop action of 80-plus-miles-per-hour slap shots thwacking into the goalies' pads and players slamming into the boards.

You have to wonder why they bother having an arena announcer, as he is inaudible. Notably missing is the thrilling ``Shoots ... Scores!'' that resounds from radios and TV sets, but also absent are commercials that break up the action.

Unlike baseball, where the crowd usually leaps to its feet only for ``the wave'' and foul balls, hockey fans spend half the game standing, and they break out in a roar each time the puck comes to their end. Any shot can mean the game, and this night the final shot is a New Jersey sudden-death overtime goal. Disappointed, I made my way home with some important lessons:

* Don't think about how you got up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday to wait in line to get tickets. If your team lost, just think of how much fun your $44 balcony seat brought you. (This does not apply if your team won: Then the three hours you spent in line was the best investment you've made in months.)

* Do know which end of the rink the home-team goalie will spend the most time - and get tickets for the other end. It will cut down on your nail-biting and fist-clenching, as you'll only have to watch your team defend its net up close for a third of the game.

The anguish of seeing a puck dribble over the line is quickly dissipated by the sight of a rushing charge of players coming toward you to get the goal back - as opposed to your being left alone with a beaten goalie. If the opposite end of the rink isn't far enough away, you can bring along a portable TV, so you can immediately switch channels to mentally escape.

* Find someone around you to bond with. This person is very handy for high-fiving when great plays are made, palm-slapping when goals are scored, and theorizing with about the course of events between periods.

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* Don't wear anything that you really care about. The concessions do a booming business, and when people get excited, food usually goes flying. It's amazing how beverages become airborne when a three-inch piece of vulcanized rubber slips into a net.

* Realize that if the game goes into overtime, the referees become mere obstacles on the ice. No penalties are called no matter how severe the infraction - or at least it seems that way.

* Don't plan on talking to anyone for days after the game, except to the ticket lady the next morning as you lay claim to those same balcony seats for the next home game.

* Plan on screaming the entire game. But remember, no matter how much you cheer, clap, shout, and wish the puck into the other team's goal, when that final buzzer sounds and you've lost, you can only file quietly out of the building, muttering to yourself along with 14,000 other fans.

If you are a hockey fanatic, you might spend the rest of your trip home as I did: pondering how early I'd have to get up to get tickets to the next game, figuring when I could wash my faithful hockey jersey, and trying to recover my voice. * At press time, the Boston Bruins were trailing in the best-of-seven series with the New Jersey Devils, 3 games to 2.

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