NOW IT GETS SERIOUS 2

 

PLAYOFF PREVIEW Part 2

Welcome back hockey fans! Here is more of my playoff preview, as we look at the Eastern Conference

EASTERN CONFERENCE Ė ROUND ONE

1st vs 8th Ė BOSTON vs MONTREAL

Well, what do you know? Montreal has qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 5 years. It was no fluke that they got there either. Led by Hart Trophy candidate Jose Theodore, along with a great mix of veterans and younger players, the Habs overcame adversity and earned themselves a playoff spot. Forget the history that the Habs have enjoyed over the years. This was just an unbelievable year for Montreal. Rewind to October, where hockey fans the world over were pushing for Saku Koivu, then diagnosed with abdominal cancer. Fast forward back to now, and Koivu has returned, and the emotional lift that he brings the team should add fuel to Montrealís already full tank. The Habs added a great mix of veterans this year, with Doug Gilmour, Donald Audette, Shaun Van Allen, Sergei Berezin and Yanic Perreault. Here are some more names for you. Andreas Dackell, Oleg Petrov, Craig Rivet, Joe Juneau, Richard Zednik. Anybody who thinks that Boston will have an easy go in this series slept through the last two weeks of the season. Boston has a balanced attack as well, but only if you allow Joe Thornton, Bill Guerin, Josef Stumpel or Glen Murray to get alone behind the net or in the slot. And is Byron Dafoe really a playoff calibre goalie? Some say he doesnít get nearly as much respect as he deserves. Well now is time to prove it. Itís not going to happen. With the magical year we witnessed for the Habs, you have to think that the Ghosts of the Montreal Forum have finally forgiven them for moving to the Molson Centre. Either that or theyíre tired of watching Movies (the Montreal Forum was transformed into a Movie Theatre/shopping complex). Montreal has only lost to Boston 7 times, ever. Look it up if you want to, but Iíve taken the liberty of doing so.

Prediction: Canadiens in 6

 

2nd vs 7th Ė PHILADELPHIA vs OTTAWA

What happens when you put two teams together that have not enjoyed a lot of postseason success? We are about to find out the answer, and the trash talk has already started. Jeremy Roenick was quoted as saying that the Senators better be prepared to be run out of the rink. Well theyíd better be prepared to make good on that threat. Even though Philly has not made it past the first round in 3 out of the past 5 seasons, they still seem to find a way to get better and better. They finally ended the Eric Lindros soap opera by sending him to the New York Rangers. In return they got Kim Johnsson, Jan Hlavac and Pavel Brendl. Hlavac was later sent to Vancouver for Donald Brashear, to add a little bit more grit. Johnsson has been a pleasant surprise, having finished top 10 on the team in scoring with 41 points. But what is even more impressive about this Flyers team are the veterans. Players like Roenick, Mark Recchi, John LeClair, Simon Gagne, Keith Primeau, Eric Weinrich, Luke Richardson, Eric Desjardins are players any coach would love to have. Their goaltending is solid with Roman Cechmanek. Even their backup Brian Boucher can steal some games for the Flyers if needed. Remember back two years ago when the Flyers took the Devils to 7 games in the semi-finals? Boucher was the guy. Consider this also: Adam Oates, acquired at the trading deadline, has more playoff points than the entire Senators roster.

On the flipside, Ottawa is coming off a rather disappointing regular season, faltering a lot down the stretch and at times looking very flat against their opposition. Oddly enough, they posted a winning record against Philly this year, going 2-1-1-0. The loss was at home and was probably the worst game Iíve seen them play since last springís playoff sweep to the Leafs. Thereís no question that the Flyers will be crashing and banging, re-establishing themselves as the Broad Street Bullies. The Senators will have to do some crashing and banging of their own to be successful. Can they do it and stay healthy? They did add depth on defense with Zdeno Chara, but more importantly will be how the forwards will do in this series. In order for the Sens to pull off an upset here, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Radek Bonk, Shawn McEachern, Chara, Mike Fisher, and captain Daniel Alfredsson will have to be at their best. Perhaps a few surprises, like Bill Muckalt performing a miracle and scoring his first goal since he was traded here from the Islanders will have to happen as well. Oh yeah, and Patrick Lalime or Jani Hurme will have to stand on their heads. Otherwise, a 5th straight 1st round exit will be inevitable for the Senators.

In the scheme of things, Ottawa keeps saying that they need to get rid of the playoff hex, and the fans will accept nothing less than a trip to the second round, but until they actually do it, that dark cloud will continue to rain on their parade. Donít look for the Senators to perform any miracles this year either. They have the scoring talent, but are not strong enough physically. Philadelphia is just too strong a team and they say that they have learned from their mistakes of years past. Then again, Ottawa is saying the same thing. Chalk this one up to experience, the Flyers have it, the Sens donít. Jacques Martin will be the next coach to be fired in the NHL, you can bet on it.

Prediction: Flyers in 5

 

3rd vs 6th Ė CAROLINA vs NEW JERSEY

This is what happens when you allow the leader of a weak and pathetic Southeast division to score the 3rd seed in the conference by default. As much as the NHL will be looking at ways to improve the current playoff format, you can bet that New Jersey will be looking for ways to perform the upset. Technically, it would be an upset, but if you look at the overall records, New Jersey should have the home ice advantage here, not Carolina. It shouldnít be too hard for New Jersey to pull it off.

Beyond goaltender Arturs Irbe, the Hurricanes have veterans Ron Francis and Rod BrindíAmour. Players like Jeff OíNeill, Martin Gelinas and Josef Vasicek can score, but beyond these 5 players and 2 stellar defensemen in Glen Wesley (who is injured) and Aaron Ward, there is not much to speak of here. If the Devils can contain these 7 players, they will win the series, itís as simple as that.

The Devils got Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner at the trading deadline to replace Alexander Mogilny. Gone are Jason Arnott and Randy McKay. The rest of the team is essentially the same team that made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals last year. Goalie Martin Brodeur, hot off of his gold medal performance in Salt Lake, will be looking to do it all again this playoff season. Then you have Scott Stevens, one of the toughest customers you will meet on the ice.

Carolina had better keep their head up, otherwise, this one will be over in a hurry. Interest in the Hurricanes is increasing in Raleigh, which should result in a good crowd for the home games. But letís be realistic here. They are no match for New Jersey with their relentless tight checking game. If the Hurricanes do manage to make believers out of us, it will make for their most interesting season since moving from Hartford.

Prediction: Devils in 6

 

4th vs 5th Ė TORONTO vs NY ISLANDERS

Is that a sigh of relief I hear coming out of both Ottawa and Toronto? After it appeared that the two provincial rivals would meet again for a third straight season, out of nowhere came the NY Islanders to secure what should be an interesting matchup.

If you look at the regular season, this should be no problem for the Islanders. But not so fast, Mike Milbury, the Maple Leafs have home ice advantage. The Air Canada Center will be buzzing once again this year, and unless the Islanders can split the first 2 games of this series it will be over faster than last yearís Senators sweep.

It has been said that this Leafs team is built for the playoffs. Unfortunately, they have not been able to execute. Could this be the year that Mats Sundin leads this team into the promised land? If itís going to happen, they will need a solid effort all around, from Curtis Joseph in goal, all the way out to their defense and forwards. They will need Tie Domi to be gritty as usual, but not let himself get carried away like he did last year. Sundin will have to continue to lead the charge and score. Alexander Mogilny will have to stay healthy. Mogilny is the only big difference in this team from last yearís team. Gary Roberts will be another player back from injury. Darcy Tucker, Gary Valk, Alyn McCauley, Mikael Renberg, and others will need to be at their best as they were during the regular season. But most importantly, goaltending will have to be stellar. They did acquire Tom Barrasso as a backup to Curtis Joseph, but he has suffered a similar fate as Cujo and broken his hand. Not that theyíll need him. If the Leafs should lose Cujo to injury again, they should be able to get by with Corey Schwab between the pipes.

The Islanders are here for the first time in 7 years, and you know they want to make the most of it. They will need their key acquisitions to pay dividends in order to be successful. Alexei Yashin will have to get that Senators playoff monkey off his back, and Michael Peca will need to show us more of those moves that made him successful in the Olympics. Roman Hamrlik, Kenny Jonsson and Adrian Aucoin will have to get in Torontoís face and stay there. The big difference between Toronto and New York is in goaltending. Cujo is a proven goaltender, but heís never won the Stanley Cup. Chris Osgood has. If it comes right down to it, that could be the difference. However, the Maple Leafs have something that a lot of teams donít have, pride, and a coach with an Olympic gold medal. Regardless of how they do in the regular season, Toronto has always been able to show life long after everybody wrote them off as pretenders. Time will tell if the Leafs can advance to the Finals for the first time since 1967, but one thingís for sure, they will do everything possible to get there, and their fans will be there behind them 125%. A little luck along the way probably wonít hurt either.

Prediction: Maple Leafs in 5

 

Itís probably a bit premature, but based on all the predictions Iíve made, I really like Detroit and Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup Finals. Of course, a lot could change between now and June, and I could find myself eating crow before long. Even if the upsets Iíve predicted donít happen, there is sure to be at least one. The intensity is imminent, so bring it on!!!!!!!

Take care everybody, and enjoy the games!

 

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