NOW IT GETS SERIOUS

 

PLAYOFF PREVIEW Part 1

Whew! What an unbelievable finish to an unbelievable season!! I donít think that weíve seen as intense a playoff race in quite some time, if ever! After what seemed an eternity, the Stanley Cup Playoffs will soon begin in earnest. Many surprises await us this year in the playoffs. As surprising as some of the teams that made it in are the teams that didnít. Edmonton, Dallas, New York Rangers, Washington, Pittsburgh, Buffalo. With the exception of the Rangers, all of these teams made it in last year. We can only attribute it to parity in the league, a topic that weíve heard so much about.

I write this column as a slightly disgruntled hockey fan as we get ready to kick into high gear with 16 teams duking it out for hockey supremacy. The Edmonton Oilers, having racked up 92 points in the regular season, are missing out on a playoff berth by a mere 3 points. Well, it could have been worse, they could have lost the tiebreaker to Vancouver (and they would have had they managed to tie in points).

In any event, Iím not going to let the misfortunes of my favorite team cloud my view of the most exciting time of the year, the Stanley Cup playoffs!! Better luck next year Edmonton (Please?). I promise you all this is the last time you will hear me mention the Oilers until the Stanley Cup is awarded. With that being said, letís have a look at the teams that did make it and the ensuing matchups.

WESTERN CONFERENCE Ė ROUND ONE

1st vs 8th Ė DETROIT vs VANCOUVER

Detroit won the Presidentís Trophy as the NHLís best regular season team and everybody is picking them as the favorite to win it all. But not so fast Scotty Bowman!! Here comes Vancouver. The Canucks had the best record of any team down the stretch and they were rewarded for it with the 8th and final playoff spot. However, the puck stops here.

To sit back and expect that itíll be a cakewalk for the Red Wings is silly and will show dire disrespect for the opponent. However, hereís what we already know; the Canucks have 1, maybe 2 big scoring lines, and they have Dan Cloutier in goal. Sure, Cloutier has played well during the regular season, but can he stop everybody on the Red Wings squad? Everybody that is from Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Chelios, Luc Robitaille. Donít forget about Mr. Kournikova, er Sergei Fedorov. If Detroit can shut down the big Vancouver line of Naslund, Bertuzzi and Morrison, and if they can get under Cloutierís skin, they should be OK in this series. I have two words for Vancouver: Dominick Hasek. Perhaps Brian Burke should call up the Manitoba Mooseís leading scorer in Andre Savage as a decoy; just a suggestion. Or perhaps the Canucks are more comfortable with Todd Warriner.

Prediction: Red Wings in 4

 

2nd vs 7th Ė COLORADO vs LOS ANGELES

Was that the Los Angeles Kings who almost upset the Colorado Avalanche in 7 games last spring? Well guess what Colorado? Theyíre back in your yard!! This year the Kings are a much stronger team. They have once again received stellar goaltending from Felix Potvin. They have added Jason Allison and Cliff Ronning to their already superb cast of forwards including Zigmund Palffy, Adam Deadmarsh, and Kelly Buchberger. After that, the Kings are essentially the same team that took the Avs to 7 games last year. On the flipside, Colorado held on to their big three, Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, and Patrick Roy. They managed to get Darius Kasparaitus at the trade deadline to make their defense that much more solid. They will also have Peter Forsberg back, but can he be a factor after having missed more than a year? Look for this one to come down to goaltending. Whoever can stop the most rubber will remain standing. Quite frankly, I donít think that Roy can handle the pressure anymore, based on his recent performances, or shall I say "Roy-fits". Forget about the fact that Roy broke Jacques Planteís record for wins this year. Roy is just simply washed up and should seriously consider retiring. Look for Los Angeles to make good on their upset the second time around. Donít forget, they beat Detroit in the first round last year. The Kings could be this springís Cinderella story. Again.

Prediction: Kings in 7

3rd vs 6th Ė SAN JOSE vs PHOENIX

Another goalie duel. Sean Burke vs Evgeni Nabokov. San Jose has won their first ever division title. Phoenix has yet to win a playoff round either as the Coyotes or the Winnipeg Jets. The Sharks have Owen Nolan, Mike Ricci, Vincent Damphousse, Niklas Sundstrom, Todd Harvey, Teemu Selanne, just to name a few. The Coyotes have Claude Lemieux and maybe Shane Doan? They did make a nice trade for Brian Savage halfway through the season, but will it be enough? Sean Burke has been hot, but can he keep it up? Wayne Gretzkyís team will make it close, but the sea of white will fade to black faster than you can say "Welcome to the Compaq Center". The Sharks are great at home, period, but so are the Coyotes. Home ice will play a factor here.

Prediction: Sharks in 7

4th vs 5th Ė ST. LOUIS vs CHICAGO

The mission of each team here: bragging rights on who has the noisiest crowd and the noisiest goal horn!! I think Chicago gets the edge here, as the United Center is starting to become everything the old Chicago Stadium was. Well, almost, but still noisy enough to be a huge factor. If you go to a game in either teamís arena, youíd better bring earplugs. The Blackhawks are back in the playoffs for the first time in 4 seasons, and Tony Amonte lived to tell the story. Gone are Roenick and Chelios. Some would say for the better. Replacing them are Eric Daze, Alexei Zhamnov, Lyle Odelein, and Phil Housley. Lots of experience there. The Blues were singing the blues down the stretch up until their final 3-5 games. They have it together at the right time. Will the return of Doug Weight be enough to help Keith Tkachuk, Pavol Demitra, Ray Ferraro and Scott Mellanby score? Should they have brought in Weightís old buddy Bill Guerin from the Bruins at the trading deadline? Can their Olympic gold medalist defensive pairing of Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis stop the Hawks from getting to the net? If they canít, Brent Johnson certainly wonít, or at the very least hasn't proven to anybody that he can. Why did the Blues get rid of Roman Turek? Jocelyn Thibault has the edge in this series, although neither goalie has enough playoff experience to say they will be a factor. This will be the 10th time that these teams have met in the playoffs. Chicago has won 7 of those previous meetings, but St. Louis won the last meeting in 1993 in a sweep. Ancient history, I can assure you. Look for lots of high scoring, even games. Itís too bad that the NHL doesnít implement the shootout in the playoffs.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 6

And thatís a wrap on the Western Conference.

 

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