The picks for the first round of the Cup playoffs |

The picks for the first round of the Cup playoffs

Chris Freud

Enjoy it while it lasts, folks.

In all likelihood, the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs is going to be the last NHL hockey we are going to be seeing for quite a while. With the current collective bargaining agreement expiring Sept. 15 and the players and owners as far apart on the issues as John Kerry and George W. Bush are, Colorado hockey fans are going to be watching the University of Denver and Colorado College for their hockey fix next winter.

The good news is this year’s playoffs should be amazing. Rivalries, upsets and intrigue abound. For a look into the crystal ball for the first round, read on:

Western Conference

Colorado (4) vs. Dallas (5)

The Avs lost their division for the first time ever and it will cost them dearly – not that Colorado was bound for Stanley Cup glory even if it raised another Northwest banner. The Avs have played poorly down the stretch and they’re running into one of the NHL’s hottest teams in the Stars. Dallas looked like it wouldn’t make the playoffs in November, and by April, the Stars nearly grabbed the Pacific title.

Paul Kariya’s out indefinitely for Colorado. Teemu Selanne is in decline. The Avs won’t be able to the play the run-and-gun style of hockey of which Avs fans dreamed when the team acquired these two free agents last summer in the playoffs. The Stars also have the edge in goaltending. The combination of David Aebischer and Tommy Salo does not a Marty Turco make.

Dallas in six.

Detroit (1) vs. Nashville (8)

The Red Wings dodged a major first-round bullet by avoiding St. Louis, which finished seventh and white-hot Edmonton, which missed the playoffs. Detroit’s goaltending is suspect, going with Manny Legace in place of the oft-injured Curtis Joseph. But, there will be no repeat of last year’s Anaheim debacle. Welcome to the playoffs, Nashville. Enjoy your brief stay.

Detroit in five.

San Jose (2) vs. St. Louis (7)

The Sharks return to the postseason after a one-year absence and their second seeding is not a fluke. This is a team well-built for the playoffs. San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov is the West Coast’s equivalent of Martin Brodeur and the Sharks play good defense around him. The Sharks’ offense is balanced with Patrick Marleau, Vincent Damphouse, Nils Ekman and Jonathan Cheechoo, though they will miss Marco Sturm who’s done for the season. The Sharks never play well in St. Louis, but San Jose is too much for the underachieving Blues.

Sharks in six.

Vancouver (3) vs. Calgary (6)

Well, the Canucks won the Northwest. That means the whole Todd Bertuzzi incident is behind them. Nope. Vancouver will miss his offense dearly in the playoffs. That will be particularly apparent against Jarome Iginla and the Flames. Coached by Darryl Sutter, who got the bum’s rush in San Jose last season, Calgary will topple favored Vancouver behind goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who led the league in goals-against-average.

Calgary in seven.

Eastern Conference

Tampa Bay (1) vs. N.Y. Islanders (8)

No, the Four Horsemen are not riding. Tampa is a No. 1-seed – and deservedly so. The Lightning is deep and has the goaltending in Nikolai Khabibulin to play late into the spring. And then, there’s Martin St. Louis – all 5-foot-9 of him – who has already won the Ross Trophy and should add the Hart come summer.

Tampa in four.

Boston (2) vs. Montreal (7)

The Bruins and Habs renew one of hockey’s greatest rivalries. There will be talk of Montreal’s dynastic dominance of the Bruins. Yes, No. 8 Montreal upset No. 1 Boston two years ago. But, these are not the Habs of old. Joe Thornton and should-be Calder-winner Andrew Raycroft rule the day. Boston beats its long-time nemesis in the postseason. May it be omen for another Boston team come fall.

Bruins in six.

Philadelphia (3) vs. New Jersey (6)

If the Devils played a few miles to the east in Madison Square Garden, home of the woefully inept Rangers, New Jersey would be the most recognizable team in the league. In nine years, the Devils have hosted Lord Stanley three times and won the East two other times. The only problem is that the defending champs are without their captain, Scott Stevens, this year – and that makes all the difference. Despite my intense hatred of Bobby Clarke, …

Philadelphia in seven.

Toronto (4) vs. Ottawa (5)

Yet another Battle of Ontario and the Leafs own the Sens, having won each of their three postseason meetings.

Expect nothing different this spring. The Leafs were a potent team and then they added Brian Leetch and Ron Francis. With Eddie the Eagle between the pipes, the Leafs will contend for their first Finals berth since 1967, with the Senators in their rear-view mirror.

Toronto in six.

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