DON'T BE surprised if more teams follow the Rangers' overtime strategy of using three forwards and one defenseman. Through last Saturday, New York, which was 4-1-3 in sudden death, had more victories in the extra session than all but two other teams. By playing with one fewer backliner, the Rangers have pushed the pace and dominated the puck, thus getting lots of offensive chances.... The Hurricanes are looking for a backup to No. 1 netminder Arturs Irbe, who has carried a huge load the last three seasons (62 games played in 1998-99, 75 in 1999-2000 and 42 of 48 this year). They've inquired about youngsters Brian Boucher, 23, of the Flyers and Dan Cloutier, 24, of the Lightning, and veteran Steve Shields of the Sharks. Carolina is dangling promising forward Bates Battaglia and stay-at-home defenseman Marek Malik.... Look for the Stars to add veteran Panthers wing Scott Mellanby before the March 13 trade deadline. Reeling Florida wants to shake up its roster, and the
34-year-old Mellanby, a gritty team player, would fit in well in Dallas.... The Bruins and the Maple Leafs are struggling mightily on the power play (17th and 19th in the league, respectively) because they don't have point men with big shots to open up defenses. That allows opponents to slack off the point man and overplay the two teams' forwards down low. Every club with an elite power play has a cannon on the point.... To match up against the top teams in the Western Conference, opponents need at least two talented offensive centers, so look for the Blues and the Sharks to try to upgrade those positions because of recent injuries to San Jose's Vincent Damphousse and St. Louis's Michal Handzus. Among the centers available are Alexei Yashin of the Senators; Mike Peca, the Sabres' restricted free-agent who is in a contract impasse with the team; and the Hurricanes' Rod Brind'Amour.