Looking into the NHL crystal ball, Part II
Oh, Lord Stanley, how we missed thee. He took last year off, but give the guy a break, he’s 114 years old and has logged more miles in the past decade than the Apollo 13 mission.Well, not Lord Stanley, but his famous Cup, the most sacred trophy in sports, which is awarded to the winner of the NHL playoffs.
As has been the case since the 1979-1980, this year’s playoffs will feature 16 teams. And unlike in other sports, all teams who qualified are really contenders. (Yes, even Edmonton, who has a better away record than home record, could knock off mighty Detroit).Vegas isn’t the place to watch playoff games, as it’s just about impossible to predict who will move on to the next round, because seeding doesn’t mean much. Momentum, experience and goaltending can supplant a mediocre season. Um, New Jersey anyone? The Devils went a perfect 10-0-0 to close up the year and have a decent goalie who’s played hockey in June a few times before.There was also this little thing called the Olympics a few months ago that could work to a few teams’ advantage. Those who already got a taste of do-or-die hockey may be better suited than the guys who won their bar league title last year in April. Detroit’s roster is replete with Olympic medalists, as is New York’s.And if I hear one more person mention the lack of experience on the Senators bench, including Don Cherry, I’ll have all 6-feet-9 of Zdeno Chara, my pick for the Norris Trophy, come after you.If you read Chris Freud’s column, try to sift through the propaganda he eschews in an attempt to claim the West’s superiority. His statistical manipulation makes Enron accountants look honest. Great, some Western teams have won the Cup, but really, the game was born, raised and perfected in the East. I hear the ice is pretty thin out West, so try not to fall through the cracks.
No. 1 Ottawa vs. No. 8 Tampa BayTampa Bay is the defending Stanley Cup champion. That’s about all the Lightning have going for it against the Eastern Conference champion, Senators.Hasek or not, I don’t care, the Senators are strong enough and deep enough on offense and defense that Darren Pang could win a Cup with this group. Forget about taking a game from these guys in Ottawa.With only three players boasting a positive plus/minus rating and mediocre goalkeeping, the only way Tampa Bay stands a chance is if Brad Richards, Vaclav Prospal, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin. St. Louis put up five goals a game.The Sens won the season series, 4-0, and will probably only surrender one game to the Lightning in this series.Ottawa in five.
No. 2 Carolina vs. No. 7 MontrealBefore you hop on the Montreal bandwagon and have them upsetting Carolina, think about a few things.Carolina has lost only eight games at home, while they’ve won an NHL-best 87.8 percent of the time when scoring first and also hold the most wins in one-goal games with 28.That being said, the Canadiens have had a streaky year and could rip off a few wins in a row. They certainly have a chance if they keep Carolina off the board, but that also depends upon whom will be between the pipes. Look for Montreal coach to split games between Huet and Aebischer.Montreal won’t be swept, only because their fans wouldn’t allow them back in the city. Carolina in six.
No. 3 New Jersey vs. No. 6 New YorkSay what you want about the state of New Jersey (and trust me, I do), but these guys can play hockey. The Sopranos Series, as I will call it, won’t have the publicity of a Subway series, but it may be just as exciting.These teams play two distinct styles of hockey, with the Devils focused on shutting down their opponents and the Rangers focused on scoring on their opponents. The Devils only have three guys with more than 50 points, all of whom are Americans, but they only need two goals to win with Brodeur in net (he’s got a 1.87 GAA and a .921 save percentage in the playoffs, with 20 shutouts). The Devils are replete with playoff experience, while the Rangers also have a bunch of veterans who’ve been the distance before.Although one point separates these two teams, I still think the Devils hold a larger advantage.Devils in six.No. 4 Buffalo vs. No. 5 Philadelphia
They meet again. It seems like every time the Sabres make the postseason, they end up facing the Flyers (six of the past seven times, to be precise).And once again, the Flyers boast size and the Sabres boast speed. Neither team has anyone with 80 points, but you can still expect a few 5-4 games.If the refs listen to Gary Bettman, who said officials who don’t call penalties as warranted during the NHL playoffs will soon find themselves watching the post-season from the sidelines, the Sabres will easily take this series, as they are the No. 2 team on the power play and No. 1 team on the kill.Peter Forsberg’s play will also be a huge factor, but Robert Esche needs to get his game on for the Flyers to win.The Sabres are surprisingly deep, and much like Hansel in Zoolander, so hot right now.Sabres in five.Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14631, or in the nuthouse if the Sabres lose.Vail, Colorado