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Anxious fans express concern during opening week of NHL's regular season

The puck just dropped on the NHL season and already there are signs of panic in some quarters.

There have been calls for a new No. 1 goaltender in Toronto. And debate in Vancouver about what could be plaguing Roberto Luongo. Martin Brodeur - the NHL's all-time winningest goalie - was even cheered derisively by fans in New Jersey during the team's home opener.

Stress has been quick to build - even if most teams still have 80 games to play.

For those involved with NHL teams, it's become a fact of life.

"There's no such thing as building your team or being patient anymore," Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. "That's all out the window now. Everybody thinks they have a chance to win."

Hitchcock saw it firsthand over the weekend when his Blue Jackets arrived in Vancouver and found an opponent in "crisis mode" - something, the coach observed, that seems to happen every time Columbus visits GM Place.

His team went on to chase Luongo in the second period after scoring on four straight shots. Suddenly, a Canucks team that couldn't be beaten in the pre-season was being doubted by segments of its significant fan base.

It's not something Hitchcock figures he would have seen to the same degree back when he was coaching the Dallas Stars a decade ago.

"You used to evaluate your team after 20 games, now you evaluate it after five games," he said. "I'm telling you it's just the way it is. You need to be ready for it because there's so many teams that are so close."

A run to the Eastern Conference final in the spring had fans of the Carolina Hurricanes feeling extremely optimistic at the start of this season. That changed quickly after a 2-0 loss to Philadelphia and 7-2 defeat in Boston - no matter that the defeats came against two of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.

While fans may be fidgeting, GM Jim Rutherford said the mood in the front office "was a long way from panic."

Even the lopsided loss to the Bruins didn't faze him because he knew that it had come in an important game for a Boston team that was looking to atone for last season's playoff loss to the Hurricanes.

"I don't get too excited about a loss like that in the first month of the season," said Rutherford. "In the spring, it might be another story."

He's currently embarking on his 16th season as GM and is among the more level-headed observers of the game. It would be out of character to see Rutherford make sudden changes at this early point of the season.

However, it can't totally be ruled out elsewhere.

Remember the Chicago Blackhawks fired Denis Savard as coach after just four games last October - putting Joel Quenneville in charge the morning after the team's first win of the season. The Blackhawks went on to make the Western Conference final.

Shakeups can come in other forms, as was evidenced by a Maple Leafs practice Wednesday that saw coach Ron Wilson put his players through several hard skating drills. He made no secret about the fact he was trying to send a message to his 0-2-1 team.

"The points are just as important now as they are later in the season," said Wilson. "I'm not going to sit around and wait for some guys to really get going here."

Toronto is one of the biggest offenders among NHL markets when it comes to getting overly excited - or concerned - about its team.

The barometer is clearly pointing in a negative direction for Leaf fans at the moment, but the team's veterans know that it won't take very much to change the current climate.

"Obviously, people are panicking here," said Leafs forward Matt Stajan. "We know as a team that we've got to be better. There's 79 games left here and we've got a full season ahead of us. We could string some games together here and (if we) get some wins, we won't be talking about this."

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OLYMPIC WATCH

You can bet that Steve Yzerman's management team has taken note of the hot start by Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards. A hat trick by the Canadian Olympic hopeful on Tuesday night gave him five goals in three games this season. And how about Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason? The 21-year-old was one of five goalies to attend the Canadian camp in Calgary over the summer and is off to the best start of the bunch: 2-0, .947 save percentage, 2.00 GAA.

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RANKINGS

A couple of teams have still only played one regular season game so it's obviously very early days in the NHL season. With that in mind, here's a look at how we'd rank the top and bottom of the league so far:

1. Pittsburgh. No sign of a hangover yet from the Stanley Cup champs.

2. Calgary. It's been 16 years since the Flames started a season 3-0.

3. Philadelphia. A nice return to the NHL for Ray Emery.

4. St. Louis. A pair of wins over the Red Wings makes it an excellent European vacation.

5. Washington. Alex Ovechkin. Is there anything else to say?

26. San Jose. Two shaky starts for Evgeni Nabokov.

27. Anaheim. Still winless after blowing a three-goal lead to the Wild on Tuesday night.

28. New Jersey. Bronx cheers for Brodeur speak volumes.

29. Vancouver. A couple wins should help restore order to the Western Conference.

30. Toronto. Coach Ron Wilson has defencemen who look like "peewee players" and forwards that can't be found with a "Norden bomb sight."

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QUOTED

"I really believe - and I hope I'm not the only one in Vancouver who believes - that Roberto Luongo is going to be the goaltender that he has always been ... I hope I'm not the only one. C'mon." - Canucks coach Alain Vigneault.

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