APRIL 2003 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

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WHAT NEXT FOR THE NON-PLAYOFF CLUBS?

Eastern Conference:

NY RANGERS: Trading for Alexei Kovalev and Anson Carter did nothing to improve their weak defensive game. All it accomplished was driving up a payroll that was already sky-high. They improved after GM Glen Sather took over as head coach, and yes, key players like Bure, Holik and Leetch were sideline with injury at various points in the season. Still, with all their talent, they blew games and points to lesser teams (Pittsburgh and Atlanta and Florida and Columbus) that they should've easily beaten. The Rangers simply don't play a strong team game. This club needs to be rebuilt with quality youth within their system, but with the mindset of those presently running the Blueshirts, don't expect that to happen anytime soon.

MONTREAL CANADIENS: There were several reasons for Montreal's disappointing season. Start with the inconsistent goaltending of last year's Hart-and-Vezina winner Jose Theodore, then factor in the underachievement of veterans Mariusz Czerkawski, Donald Audette, Randy McKay, and Patrice Brisebois. Tack on a lack of a quality physical presence up front, a weak defensive game, poor coaching, and woeful special teams, and it's no wonder they missed the post-season. All this despite forwards Saku Koivu, Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis career seasons, and defenceman Andrei Markov's breakthrough year. Youngsters Mike Komisare, Jason Ward and Marcel Hossa are promising, but hopes for improvement depend on Theodore rebounding from this season's mediocre performance.

FLORIDA PANTHERS: They may have missed the playoffs this season, but this team has perhaps the most promise of any in the East. Head coach Mike Keenan has done a fine job thus far of developing his young club into one that plays a strong, team-oriented game. Most notable was the improvement of Olli Jokinen, who had his long-awaited breakthrough campaign under Keenan this year. As notable youth such as Roberto Luongo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Kristian Huselius continue to develop, they'll blossom into the next wave of NHL superstars. That being said, it's going to take time before they're a playoff contender.

ATLANTA THRASHERS: The Thrashers made noticeable improvement this season for two main reasons: the incredible sophomore campaign of Dany Heatley, and the hiring of Bob Hartley at mid-season as their head coach. Heatley has built on his Calder-winning season of a year ago and can be rightly considered among the elite players in the game. Led by his play and Hartley's no-nonsense coaching, the Thrashers have been a .500 hockey club since mid-season. There are still other depth areas to be addressed, notably between the pipes and on the blueline, but for the first time in their existence, the Thrashers are headed in the right direction.

BUFFALO SABRES: It was a season from hell for the Sabres, but with the purchase of the club by billionaire Tom Galisano, some stability has come back into the roster. Adding freewheeling winger Daniel Briere has helped their scoring punch, especially when oft-injured forward Jochen Hecht was placed on his line. Still, there is uncertainty as to what this club will look like in the off-season. General manager Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff may not be with the team by the time training camp opens in September. The Sabres appear stabilized, but the road back to respectability has just begun.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: This club went into a tailspin after selling off forward Alexei Kovalev to the Rangers. Not even captain Mario Lemieux could save them. Looking ahead to next season, there appears little for Pens fans to be optimistic about. Questions remains as to how long forwards Martin Straka and Aleksey Morozov and goalie Johan Hedberg will remain with the team, and now there's speculation Lemieux might either retire or attempt to sell the club. If you thought this season was bad, Penguins fans, the worst may be coming next year.

CAROLINA HURRICANES: From the penthouse of a berth in the Cup finals a year ago to the outhouse of a Conference doormat, it's been a long, agonizing slide for the Hurricanes. A club filled with so much promise collapsed through a combination of injuries, poor trades, inconsistent play and rumours of dressing room turmoil. Still, given the talent on this roster, it would be foolish to assume the Hurricanes won't rebound next season. However, it may have to do so without head coach Paul Maurice, who butted heads with his players more than once this season. His long-time act with the 'Canes may finally be wearing thin, and if the players have tuned him out, they won't be listening to him next season.

Western Conference:

PHOENIX COYOTES: Injuries to many key players, notably goaltender Sean Burke, is what kept the Desert Dawgs from building on their promising campaign of a year ago. It also didn't help that Tony Amonte, the $6 million man, failed to come through as hoped offensively. It remains to be seen if trading away talented little speedster Daniel Briere for the bigger but inconsistent Chris Gratton will pan out. However, this is a team that should rebound next season if they can stay healthy. They're deep in goal, team captain Teppo Numminen spurned an opportunity to win a Cup in Detroit by staying with the Coyotes, and landing a decent playmaker in Jan Hrdina at the trade deadline should bolster their offensive depth.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: A horrific start to the season, and injuries to key players like David Legwand late in the season, killed the Predators playoff hopes. However, sandwiched in between these two events were notable signs this young club may finally be ready to take the next step to legitimate playoff contention. Former backup goalie Tomas Vokoun has finally emerged as a quality starter, while young talent like Legwand, Kimmo Timonen, Denis Arkhipov, and Scott Hartnell made big strides in improving their performance. Still, they'll have to deliver on that promise next season, or big changes could be in the offing for Nashville.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: Another club that was mauled by the injury bug this season, the Kings lost notable players such as Adam Deadmarsh and Jason Allison and were never able to make up ground in the standings. This is a team that, when healthy, can easily make the playoffs. Trading away Mathieu Schneider and Bryan Smolinski in salary dumps could be off-set if young talent like Lubomir Visnovsky and Alexander Frolov can step up their games next season. One area of concern, however, is between the pipes, where Felix Potvin was inconsistent and could be lost to free agency, while Jamie Storr performaned little better than Potvin. If they can bolster their goaltending and remain healthy, look for the Kings to contend for the playoffs next season.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Just when it seemed the soap opera was coming to an end for Chicago hockey fans, the Blackhawks cranked up yet another version of "As the Stomach Turns". There's speculation GM Mike Smith and coach Brian Sutter could be fired, as well as the possibility of the team buying out the contract of noted problem-child forward Theo Fleury. Key players such as Eric Daze, Steve Sullivan and Alexei Zhamnov were plagued by injury or inconsistency. And owner Bill Wirtz continues to run the club like it's 1963. There is a decent core of talent on this team, but how the 'Hawks address the woes that plagued them this season will determine how well that talent performs next season.

SAN JOSE SHARKS: OK, show of hands, how many of you predicted the Sharks would be a Cup contender this season? Don't try to deny it, many observers believed they would be, which makes their fall from grace this season that much more shocking. It led to the firings of their coach and GM and the dealing away of their popular team captain, but these moves raised more questions than they answered. There's talk the housecleaning may not be done, as notable expensive veteran talent like Teemu Selanne and Vincent Damphousse could end up dealt or walking away via free agency. It'll be interesting to see what type of club the Sharks become by the start of next season.

CALGARY FLAMES: With a core of good young talent that improves each season, the Flames still missed the playoffs, this year for the seventh straight season. Superstar forward Jarome Iginla was hampered in the first half by injury, now-departed centre Marc Savard's clashes with now-departed head coach Greg Gilbert was a first half distraction, and inconsistent goaltending by Roman Turek sealed their fate. Iginla should have a better overall season next year if he stays healthy, and new head coach Darryl Sutter should be able to get more out of the Flames over the course of an entire season. They kept the core of their team together, rather than dealing it away before the trade deadline, which bodes well for next season. Still, the one wild card is Turek, who must play consistently well if the Flames are to end their seven year drought.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: They didn't develop as quickly as their expansion cousins from Minnesota, but the Blue Jackets are slowly but surely making progress. Last summer's free agent acquisition Andrew Cassels meshed well with his old Hartford Whalers linemate Geoff Sanderson to give the Jackets a strong scoring line, while rookie Rick Nash shows a lot of promise for the future. Still, there are potential problem areas to be addressed. The club needs to find a new head coach after firing Dave King at mid-season, their defensive game still needs work, and it's possible they could lose leading scorer Ray Whitney to free agency this summer.

PLAYOFF NEWS AND NOTES.

A STAR IS BORN: In an almost eerie recreation of the opening round of last year's playoffs, the Detroit Red Wings find themselves down 2 games to nil in an opening round series.

What's different about this year compared to last, apart for the obvious fact the Wings are the defending champs, is the fact they find themselves in this situation due to the outstanding play of one player.

Going into this series, nobody gave the Anaheim Mighty Ducks any chance against the mighty Red Wings (except for die-hard Ducks fans, of course, and I'll bet most of them had their reservations). The Wings, after all, were the defending champs, who entered the playoffs in top form. They were deep at all positions, leading most to conclude the outcome of this series would be a Wings sweep of the lowly Quackers.

However, the Wings, and hockey fans outside of the Anaheim area, were about to be introduced to a young goalie who's been quietly building a reputation as one of the best netminders in the game.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere has been perhaps one of the best kept secrets in the National Hockey League. An outstanding young netminder whose stats rank among the best in the league, nevertheless most hockey fans (especially in the East) got little chance to see just how good Giguere was.

But the guy they call "Jiggy" in Anaheim is now the talk of the league, thanks to his tremendous goaltending, which has carried his underdog (or should that be "underduck"?) team to a shocking 2-0 series lead over the heavily-favoured Red Wings.

In Game One, he was nothing short of brilliant, blocking a record 63 shots and giving up only an early goal before shutting the door on Detroit's awesome offence through regulation and into three periods of overtime play. His performance gave his outplayed teammates a chance to win, which they subsequently did thanks to team captain Paul Kariya.

Game Two didn't require overtime heroics, but Giguere had to be no less brilliant, as the Wings turned up the offence , outplaying the Ducks by an even bigger margin than they did in the first game. But try as hard as they did, Detroit's all-star lineup couldn't crack the Anaheim netminder. They managed to score twice on 36 shots, but that was all as they came up short to Anaheim's three goals.

The Ducks played better as a team in the second game, rallying from a 2-1 deficit for the victory, but it was obvious to all who watched both games that, were it not for Giguere, the Wings would've easily beaten the Ducks in both games.

While down by two games in this series, it would be folly to assume the Wings could lose this series. Indeed, if the Ducks fail to improve their overall play as the series progresses, it could well come back to haunt them.

However, based on his strong performance thus far, the 25-year-old Anaheim goalie has demonstrated a series win for the Wings will not be an easy thing after all. Indeed, it raises the possibility, long though it may be, of the Mighty Ducks upsetting the defending Cup Champions.

Regardless of the outcome of this series, JS Giguere has proven to the rest of the hockey world that there is a new goaltending star in the National Hockey League, one that should burn brightly in Anaheim for years to come.

CAPS EXPERIENCE THE EDGE: Looks like my prediction of the Tampa Bay Lightning beating the Washington Capitals could be in jeopardy. The Caps are heading back to Washington for Games Three and Four of this series up two games to nothing, leaving the Bolts and their fans stunned.

It's how easily the Capitals have jumped out to this lead that has surprised many, including myself. From goaltending to defensive play to offence to special teams to the dirty work along the board, Washington has dominated the Lightning, in turn making the Tampa Bay team look like the inexperienced kids they really are when it comes to post-season action.

Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig has outplayed the Bolts Nikolai Khabibulin, who came into the post-season as one of the hottest goalies in the league. "The 'Bulin Wall" has received little help from his teammates, whose defensive game in this series has been atrocious.

The Capitals blueline corps, in comparison, have done a fine job of shutting down the younger, faster Lightning forwards. Vaclav Prospal and Brad Richards have only a point apiece, while Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis have yet to make the scoresheet.

But it's been the play of the veteran scoring forwards of the Capitals, which I noted in my playoff prediction of this series could be a key factor,that has dominated this series.

From Jaromir Jagr to Peter Bondra to Robert Lang to Michael Nylander, the Capitals experienced big guns have shredded the Bolts defence and made Khabibulin look ordinary. In only two games, the Capitals have outscored the Lightning 9-3, with most of their points coming from those four forwards.

These guys were the ones upon whom the Caps playoff hopes would rest. Thus far, they've more than done the job.

FLAMES FIRE GM BUTTON. In a move that surprised no one, the Calgary Flames decided not to extend the contract of general manager Craig Button, terminating his services less than a week after the team missed the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season.

Hired over two years ago to right the sinking Flames ship, Button did little in his tenure to do so. The main lowlights:

- Dealing for goalie Roman Turek, signing him to a large contract, only to watch "Large" play small between the Flames pipes.

- Trading away promising netminder JS Giguere to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in exchange for a draft pick.

- Allowing the dispute between former head coach Greg Gilbert and centre Marc Savard to fester for a year before finally addressing the problem, and then getting little back in exchange after trading Savard to Atlanta.

- His shoddy treatment of veterans like Mike Vernon and Dave Lowry.

Granted, not every move Button made was bad. His acquisitions of Craig Conroy and Chris Drury bolstered their offense. He was able to re-acquire forward Dean McAmmond, whom he parted with as part of the Drury acquistion. He added valuable experience to the blueline by signing Bob Boughner, and resisted the temptation to trade Jarome Iginla last season.

However, the Flames inability to make the playoffs, due in part to Button's aforementioned miscues, doomed any hopes he may have harboured of staying on as their general manager.

Now, the burden falls to head coach Darryl Sutter, who'll be double-hatted as bench boss and general manager.

While an experienced coach, Sutter has no experience in the front office. Performing both tasks is not an easy job, as witnessed by the fact only three teams this season - the Leafs, Rangers and Blue Jackets - were coached and managed by one person.

The latter two did it because they fired their respective coaches at mid-season, while critics of the Leafs Pat Quinn complain he's unable to adequately focus on both jobs at once.

With over a dozen restricted free agents to re-sign this summer, it'll be interesting to see what moves Sutter makes.

Long-suffering Flames fans will be watching closely...

SATHER DUMPS ON RANGERS FANS FOR BOOING. Almost immediately after the NY Rangers played their final home game, which coincidentally eliminated them from the playoff race, GM and head coach Glen Sather scolded the New York fans for daring to boo his club in the final period as it was apparent the Rangers would lose.

Apparently, Sather believed the fans booing his players did little to boost their confidence and was in fact counter-productive.

Typical Slats. Pin the blame for another disastrous season for the Blueshirts on anyone but himself and the team.

If anything, Sather and his merry band of overpaid underachievers should be thanking their long-suffering supporters for continuing to come out and plunked down the high ticket prices to watch the Rangers stink out the joint at every home game for the past six years.

It goes like this: when a team seems to perennially lead the league in salary, stockpiling their roster with all-star talent, that team has no excuses for missing the playoffs six straight seasons.

Injuries to defenceman Brian Leetch, Pavel Bure and Bobby Holik over the course of the season? If that's the excuse, what does it say about the rest of the Rangers blueline? About the other supposed scoring stars like Kovalev, Nedved, Lindros and Carter? About the quality of their checking lines?

Don't try to sell that deal to the St. Louis Blues, who played almost the entire season without team captain and former Norris winner Chris Pronger, and saw power forward Keith Tkachuk and playmaking centre Doug Weight miss significant playing time due to injury.

Yes, the Blues spent a lot of money too, but unlike the Rangers, they got results for their investment. The Blues were never out of the playoff picture throughout the season. The Rangers spent most of it on the outside looking in.

The Rangers faithful ponied up the cash for the present roster, convinced last summer that this season, finally, their club would snap out of their long doldrums and play like the star-laden team they're supposed to be.

Given the way the past season went down, they have every right to boo their Blueshirts.

FLEURY BACK IN NHL'S SUBSTANCE ABUSE PROGRAM. The sad saga that has been Theo Fleury's career over the last four years headed into another chapter recently. The veteran winger, who has battled substance abuse, was placed in Level 3 of the league's substance abuse program.

He's been suspended without pay for six months and will have to apply to the league to be reinstated when the ban is over. Granted, it's a rather toothless suspension, as Fleury's team, the Chicago Blackhawks, missed the playoffs, thus the diminutive winger wouldn't be paid during that time period. Still, the suspension ends at the start of next season.

There's no word as to whether Fleury suffered another relapse, but the odds are pretty good that he did. Why else would he be placed back into treatment.

I felt sympathy for Fleury when it was first announced that he was seeking treatment for substance abuse. However, it's evident that treatment, and the subsequent ones since then, have done nothing to curb his self-destructive slide.

Worse, this could factor into any decision by the Blackhawks to retain him. It's been rumoured for weeks the club might buy out the remainder of his contract, but until a week ago, it still seemed possible they might give Fleury another chance. Who knows if they'll do that now?

If Fleury slips up again, the next level of treatment also involves a one-year suspension from the league. He'll obviously won't be a Blackhawk by then. Figure the odds of any team wanting to take a chance on him then.

Fleury was given the nickname "Little Big Man" by the Calgary press early in his career.

Now, he's just a little man who seemingly doesn't want to battle his problems, at least in the eyes of his fans who prayed for him.

Fleury's career, and quite possibly his life, is hanging by a thread now. The only person who can help him is himself.

DUCKS DINE ON WINGS!

OK, Anaheim Mighty Ducks fans, show of hands: how many of you honestly believed your underdog club could not only knock off the defending champs, but could turn the trick in four straight games?

I have a feeling those die-hards are in a large minority, but they look like geniuses now.

This is perhaps the biggest upset in the Stanley Cup playoffs since the San Jose Sharks turned the trick on the Red Wings in the opening round of the 1994 playoffs. There are, however, two significant differences: it took the Sharks seven games, and the Wings weren't defending Cup champions then.

Right now, millions of shocked Red Wings fans and many happily dazed Ducks supporters are asking the same question: how did Anaheim do it? Was the Angels rally monkey lurking in their dressing room?

Comparing the rosters of the two clubs, their respective records, and the Wings dominance of the Ducks during their regular season match-ups, it appeared on paper a mismatch. The Wings had depth, experience, leadership and did I mention they were defending champs? The Ducks had, well, they did have Kariya, Oates and Sykora, and a promising young goalie in JS Giguere, but the rest of their roster was scarcely known outside Orange County.

But that's the wonderful thing about the Stanley Cup playoffs. The regular season gets tossed to the wayside, and anything can happen.

The bulk of the credit for the Ducks success goes to Giguere. Without his outstanding play, Anaheim wouldn't have found themselves in a position to sweep Detroit. Indeed, it might be they today making arrangements for tee-times instead of the Wings. Giguere's play proved once again that a team's playoff hopes ultimately rests on the goaltender.

In the first two games of the series, the Red Wings completely dominated the Ducks, but they couldn't put the puck past "Jiggy" with a cannon. He was absolutely outstanding and the sole reason the Ducks stole two games at the Joe Louis Arena.

He was no less outstanding in the final two games at the Arrowhead Pond, but there was a noticeable difference in the Ducks in those games.

Buoyed by Giguere's heroics between the pipes, his teammates found their confidence. They played a far better team game, particularly the defensive aspect, and consistently out-hustled the Wings.

Going into Game Four, the Mighty Ducks were no longer in awe of the Detroit machine. They felt they had a chance to win the series going into Game Three, but they knew they would win going into Game Four.

For a franchise that's been on the selling block for a couple of years, that suffered through lousy management, lack of roster depth and lousy on-ice performances prior to this season, and a shrinking fan base, this upset series victory is a much-needed shot in the arm for their survival.

Credit must also go to GM Bryan Murray, whose deft moves since last summer to bolster the club's depth has paid off in spades this season, and head coach Mike Babcock, whose quiet confidence has rubbed off on his players and helped them believe in themselves and their system.

Finally, give it up to veterans like Adam Oates, Petr Sykora, Steve Rucchin, Keith Carney, Steve Thomas and team captain Paul Kariya. As the series progressed, this group of veterans stepped up their play noticeably and helped make the Ducks a stronger club. A team needs their best players to come through if they hope to have success in the playoffs, and along with Giguere, these guys did indeed come through.

While the Ducks and their fans savour their unlikely victory and prepare for the next round, questions and fingerpointing will dog the Red Wings for most of the off-season.

The natural tendency will be to blame Wings goalie Curtis Joseph, who bolted the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer as a free agent to "play for a winner" in Detroit.

While it's true "Cujo" gave up a couple of soft goals in this series, it would be blatantly unfair to make him the scapegoat. Looking at the stats for the series, Joseph posted a 2.08 GAA and a .917 SP, very good numbers for the playoffs.

The real culprit was the Red Wings as a team. As the series progressed, their confidence was shaken. Their dominance of the Ducks, so apparent in the first two games, faded.

Most importantly, they were unable to solve JS Giguere. Had he been unable to withstand the onslaught of the first two games, this series would've still ended in four games, but it would've been in the Wings favour.

Still, with a lineup stocked with notable all-star talent like Yzerman, Fedorov, Hull, Shanahan, Robitaille, Lidstrom, Chelios and Schneider, it remains almost inconceivable that they were unable to light the lamp more in this series than they did.

If the Wings had been able to put the puck past Giguere more often, those couple of soft goals by Joseph would've been overlooked, a mere blip on the radar. Instead, they'll be unfairly magnified and cast Joseph in a very harsh light this summer.

So what changes could be in store for the Red Wings in the off-season?

Sergei Fedorov, Kris Draper, Darren McCarty, Igor Larionov, Jason Woolley and Steve Yzerman are all unrestricted free agents this summer. Yzerman said he'd like to return for one more season, and given all he's done for the team, it's unlikely the Wings won't give him that opportunity

Still, there are questions as to whether or not the Wings retain Draper, McCarty, Larionov and Woolley. Given how badly Luc Robitaille struggled this season, he probably won't be back.

All attention, however, will be devoted to the status of Fedorov. He rejected a five year, $50 million offer from the club earlier this season, and is said to be seeking $12 mil per season. In the past, the Wings may have given serious consideration to such a deal, but with the uncertainty over the upcoming labour negotiations in September 2004, the Wings might decide to take a pass and let "Feds" test the market.

One factor that is inescapable is that of the overall age of the Red Wings. They're one of the oldest clubs in the NHL, and while it wasn't a factor last season when they marched to the Cup, it may have finally reared it's ugly head in this series, and it will become more of a factor in the future. That could influence any significant changes made by management in the coming months.

It is certainly shaping to be an interesting summer in Detroit, and it could be an amazing spring in Anaheim. 

SENATORS, DEVILS MARCH ON.

The Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils accomplished what was expected of them, winning their opening rounds against the NY Islanders and Boston Bruins respectively.

The Isles did manage to shock the heavily-favoured Senators with their 3-0 upset win in Game One, but while Ottawa fans and media fretted over the spectre of past post-season futility, the Sens used that defeat, and the subsequent "trash-talking" of Isles head coach Peter Laviolette, as motivation. They repaid the Isles in kind with a 3-0 Game Two victory and never looked back.

Apart from forcing overtime in the third game, the Islanders were unable to repeat their impressive Game One victory. Having backed into the post-season due to inconsistent play and a disconcerting lack of production by some of their top players, the same problems dogged the Isles in this series. Against the more talented, experienced Senators, the Islanders woes doomed them.

As for the Boston Bruins, they were simply no match for the Devils suffocating defensive game and the brilliant performance of New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur. Bruins temporary bench boss, general manager Mike O'Connell, was consistently out-coached by the more experienced Pat Burns, who in winning this series gained a measure of revenge over his former employer.

The Devils accomplished this despite a lack of production from their top scorers, Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez. Fortunately, other New Jersey forwards - notably, Jamie Langenbrunner, John Madden and Joe Nieuwendyk - stepped up to provide their club with the timely goals needed to bury the Bruins.

Except for a lopsided 5-1 victory in Game Four which was attributable to the Devils easing up after taking a 3 games to zip lead, The Bruins were never really in this series.

As the Devils prepare for the next round, there is some concern over the lack of offence from Elias and Gomez. These two must regain their form if New Jersey hopes to progress in this year's playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Senators are heading into their next series with few concerns. They're healthy, playing a strong team game, and are getting production from many of their top players, like Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat.

Their defeated first round opponents, meanwhile, will be spending the summer dealing with darker concerns.

After the promise of a year ago, the Islanders simply failed to build on that success. Indeed, if it weren't for a strong mid-season surge, they likely wouldn't have made the 2003 playoffs.

Of primary concern is the lack of production from their top two players, Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca.

The latter can be forgiven as he obviously struggled to get back into game-shape after last summer's reconstructive knee surgery. Yashin, however, has no excuse for his drop-off in production, although his supporters insist the chief cause is lack of quality linemates. Whether Islanders management can afford to bring in some help for the talented Russian this summer is another matter.

The Bruins, meanwhile, enter the off-season lacking a quality head coach, a capable offensive defenceman, and like last summer, questions regarding their goaltending.

Steve Shield was average for most of the season, and while Jeff Hackett struggled after coming over from Montreal in a mid-season trade, he did play well in a losing cause in the playoffs. However, his unrestricted free agent status this summer casts his future with the Bruins - notorious for playing hardball with free agents - into doubt.

LIGHTNING, STARS HEAD INTO SECOND ROUND.

Thanks to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars, my first round prediction record is looking better.

The Stars did it by defeating a game but overmatched Edmonton Oilers club, while the Lightning - considered underdogs despite winning the Southeast Division title - rallied from a two game series deficit to defeat the Washington Capitals.

Dallas's victory was not unexpected, considering their roster was loaded with veteran talent, many of whom have played on Stanley Cup champions in the past.

That's not to slight the young Oilers, who fought like tigers against their more seasoned opponents. They threw a scare into the Stars early in the series with a 2-1 series lead, but the experienced Dallas club didn't panic, took control of the series in Game Four and never looked back.

Besides the Stars veterans, several other factors contributed to Edmonton's downfall. While young and energetic, they were also prone to youthful mistakes, particularly when it came to taking penalties. Staying out of the penalty box was paramount if the Oilers hoped to upset the Stars, but it was something they were unable to do as the series progressed. Bad penalties cost them in Games Two and Five and sealed their doom.

Another factor was the inability of key forwards like Mike Comrie, Ryan Smyth and Mike York to contribute offensively. Granted, Comrie was hampered by a broken thumb, but against the bigger Stars defence, these smaller forwards were unable to make an impact.

Finally, the injury of Game Three hero Radek Dvorak drove the final nail into Edmonton's coffin. Losing this speedy puckhandling wizard in Game Four took an important offensive element out of the Oilers attack.

The question now for the Oilers as they prepare for next season is the same one that has dogged them for several years. Can the ownership afford to keep this promising young team together? That inability has hampered the Oilers development, as key players like Curtis Joseph, Janne Niinimaa, Anson Carter, Bill Guerin and Doug Weight all departed due to Edmonton's tight budget. It appears certain long-time Oiler forward Todd Marchant will depart via free agency this summer, as could deadline-day pickup, UFA defenceman Cory Cross.

If the next Collective Bargaining Agreement fails to address the problem of small-market clubs like the Oilers, not only will their fans see more promising youngsters depart in the future, but it's also possible the club could fold.

As for the Stars, they'll have to face another underdog, only this one could prove more dangerous. Their second round opponents are none other than the slayer of the defending Cup champion Red Wings, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. (NOTE: Analysis of this series will appear in my Playoff Predictions page soon...)

Experienced depth helped the Dallas Stars, but it proved ineffective for the Washington Capitals.

After years of wallowing in the bottom of the NHL standings, the Tampa Bay Lighting finally saw their patience with young talent pay off this season, resulting in the aforementioned divisional title.

Still, many experts didn't give them much of a chance against the Capitals, citing the amount of post-season experience on the Washingston roster in comparison to the young Bolts. Why, Jaromir Jagr alone had played more most-season games than the entire Lighting roster!

Before this series began, I stated this match-up would depend on which club's top forwards came through in the heat of playoff battle.

In the first two games, it was obviously the Capitals experienced forwards of Jagr, Peter Bondra, Michael Nylander and Robert Lang. They shredded the Lighting's defence and made Tampa Bay netminder Nikolai Khabibulin look ordinary. Meanwhile, the Bolts top forwards - Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Vinny Prospal and Brad Richards - were almost invisible.

However, as the series progressed, it was the Lighting's young guns - notably St. Louis, Lecavalier and Prospal - who stepped up and, along with the improved goaltending of Khabibulin, turned the series in the Bolts favour.

The longer the games, and the series, progressed, the better the young, fleet-footed Lightning stars performed, and the stronger their goaltender became, while their veteran opponents seemed to wilt as the heat of the series was cranked up.

If one player made a name for himself in this series, it was the Lightning's diminutive winger, Martin St. Louis. After being held scoreless in the first two games, St. Louis exploded for five goals and nine points in the next four, including the game winners in Games Four and Five and the series clincher, in triple overtime, in Game Six.

A speedy, puckhandling wizard with an accurate shot, St. Louis has been the Bolts most valuable player thus far. He may only be 5-6, 170 lbs, but as his teammates admiringly pointed out, he's playing a big man's game.

Honourable mention should be given to Khabibulin, who finally answered his critics who said he couldn't win a playoff series. His Herculean effort in Game Six (stopping 60 shots over six periods) was the difference in that match.

In overcoming a two-game series deficit to defeat the more experienced Capitals, the Lightning have served notice they are not a club to be taken lightly in this year's post-season. My pick as the Eastern Conference dark horse in this year's playoffs are coming of age, displaying the poise and confidence of a more seasoned team.

That poise and confidence will be put to the test against their second-round opponents, the New Jersey Devils. It should shape up as an interesting duel between the Devils suffocating defensive system and the Lightning's free-wheeling offensive attack.

As for the Capitals, all may not be well.

There were many empty seats in their home arena for Game Six, as many Washington fans decided to pass on what they probably knew was coming: another post-season collapse by the Caps.

The loss to the Lightning marked the fourth time since 1992 the Capitals have blown a two-game lead to loss a playoff series.

It also casts some doubt as to the direction the club is taking. After ponying up big bucks for Jagr and Lang, and to retain Bondra, the Capitals are no better now than they were before owner Ted Leonsis decided to open his vault to bring in high-priced talent.

One key problem is on the blueline. The Capitals simply lacked the depth in experienced defencemen, a need that went unaddressed at the trade deadline. When one considers the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Dallas Stars all landed quality defencemen in Dan McGillis, Glen Wesley and Lyle Odelein by giving up only draft picks in return, it makes GM George McPhee's inability to bring in blueline help for his roster all the more glaring.

It could also possibly cost him his job, as Mr. Leonsis cannot be happy over the lack of return he's seen for his investment over the past two years.

SEVENTH HEAVEN FOR FLYERS, CANUCKS, WILD.

WILD UPSET THE AVALANCHE: It may not be on the same scale as the Mighty Ducks sweeping the heavily-favoured Red Wings, but the Minnesota Wild's defeat of the Colorado Avalanche in seven games had plenty of shock value.

Down three games to one to the powerful Avs, Wild coach Jacques Lemaire decided to change goalies, opting for Manny Fernandez over Dwayne Roloson, and asked his young club to simply work harder.

Simplicity in itself, and it turned the tide of the series.

Fernandez was outstanding, outduelling perhaps the greatest playoff goaltender in history in Colorado's Patrick Roy, while his teammates simply refused to quit. They outworked the Avs and stuck to their gritty defensive style, which squeezed the life out of Colorado's vaunted offensive attack.

The Avs biggest stars - Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic - did their part to give their club victory, but their teammates - most notably, Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay - came up short.

Roy was steady in goal, and had his teammates been able to capitalize on their scoring chances, it would've been enough to seal victory. But in the final three games, close-checking and low-scoring, steady wasn't good enough.

The Wild needed their best players, Marian Gaborik and Andrew Brunette, to bring forth better efforts in those final three games than they had in the previous four. When it counted most, they - along with teammates Pascal Dupuis, Wes Walz and Richard Park - came through with the timely offence needed to win it all.

Avs fans will be scratching their heads for months over this one. How did their club, loaded with all-star talent and only two years removed from Cup glory, come up short against a three year old team stocked with no-names?

Bottom line: Jacques Lemaire. A master coach, he's had the Wild buying into his system since the club came into existence. A old veteran of countless playoff battles as a player and coach, his calm demeanour, along with his coaching style, inspired his team.

While Avs rookie bench boss Tony Granato did a good job in his first kick at the playoff cat, he was unable to spur his club into finishing the Wild when they were down. Lemaire, on the other hand, never gave up and instilled that motivation into his players.

The Wild will now face the Vancouver Canucks in the second round, while the Avalanche will be forced into a longer off-season than they expected, one that will undoubtedly be filled with questions and re-examination.

CANUCKS OUTLAST THE BLUES: In perhaps the hardest-hitting series of the playoffs, the rising Vancouver Canucks fought back from a two game series deficit to oust a veteran St. Louis Blues club.

The series started badly for the Canucks, losing 6-0 in the opening game of the series. Their top line of Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi wasn't contributing offensively. Goalie Dan Cloutier appeared to be fighting the puck, while the Blues were out-battling the Canucks at every turn. Vancouver lurched through the next three games, to find themselves after Game Four facing elimination.

Then some good fortune smiled on the Canucks. Blues defenceman and captain Al MacInnis missed most of the series with a seperated shoulder. A vicious flu bug ravaged the Blues roster, weakening several of their players.

Still, without an improvement in their game, the Canucks probably wouldn't have staved off the inevitiable. The Canuck players were determined that, if they were to lose the series, it wouldn't happen in Game Five in front of their hometown fans.

It was that determination, and to a lesser degree the Blues flu woes, that sparked the Canucks comeback.

Naslund, Morrison and Bertuzzi regained their scoring touch. Cloutier settled down and was rock-solid in the final three games. The Canucks defencemen began jumping up more on the offensive rush, with the end result being every one of them, except for Murray Baron, scored. They also did a much better job defensively.

Most importantly, Vancouver improved their team game, particularly the physical aspect. They pounded anyone wearing a Blue note, which eventually took it's toll on a banged-up and haggard St. Louis team.

Naturally, there will be blamethrowing amongst Blues fans, as their $60 million US roster failed to come through. However, it would be unfair to dump on them so vehemently. The Blues showed a lot of heart throughout the regular season, overcoming a series of devastating injuries to several key players. They also had to cope with inconsistent goaltending through most of the season. And while the Blues themselves won't use it as an excuse, the flu that hit their lineup did play a part in their downfall. One has to wonder how different the series outcome may have been if they had been a little healthier.

That is cold comfort for the Blues, and it's quite likely GM Larry Pleau will be re-examining his roster, particularly his goaltending, during yet another long summer.

FLYERS DEFEAT THE MAPLE LEAFS: As predicted by yours truly, the Philadelphia Flyers were victorious over the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven hard-fought games. Given the number of overtime periods these clubs played in this round, it may as well have have 10 games.

It was a very physical, highly entertaining series, in which both clubs punched and counter-punched and pushed the series to the maximum. Ultimately, it would be the Flyers disciplined style and depth of talent that won out over the banged-up, defensively soft Maple Leafs. After staving off elimination in a gutsy OT win in Game Six, the Leafs had nothing left in the tank and were hammered by the Flyers in Philadelphia in the deciding seventh game.

The Flyers emerge from this series looking very impressive. They've bought into Ken Hitchcock's system, never panicking and remaining disciplined throughout. Their roster depth was very apparent in this series, overmatching the Leafs throughout most of the series. If not for the stellar netminding of Ed Belfour, the Leafs would've been done in five games.

Philly came out of this war with Toronto relatively unscathed, save for a broken foot suffered by blueline workhorse Eric Desjardins, and the occasionally adventurous netminding of Roman Cechmanek, which can give Flyers fans heart palpatations.

Their second round opponents will be the well-rested Ottawa Senators, themselves practicioners of a tight-checking, offensively opportunistic style. It promises to be an entertaining matchup between two evenly matched teams.

As for the Maple Leafs, all the deadline deals swung by Pat Quinn did little to address the team's soft blueline corps. The Leafs have had this problem for years, only it was much more apparent this season. Curiously, Toronto's usually high-octane offence was out-shot by the Flyers for most of the series. In most cases, they opted to pass instead of shooting, thus failing to generate more scoring chances.

One is left to wonder just how much Shayne Corson's bailing from the Leafs after Game Three affected their team chemistry. There was talk of Corson not getting along well with some of the coaching staff and several of his teammates. Corson quitting the team may have had a more negative impact on the Leafs than we imagined.

With the new Leafs ownership looking to make some changes, it could be Pat Quinn's swan song as either coach or general manager. He'll have to give up one of his positions, and I'm betting he'll prefer to remain GM and give up the coaching reins to someone of his choosing.

It's shaping up to be an interesting off-season for "Canada's Team".

OVERALL FIRST ROUND PREDICTION RECORD: 6 FOR 8.

SECOND ROUND NEWS AND NOTES.

- The Devils-Lightning yawnfest. Before I get inundated by angry e-mails from fans of these two clubs, let me say that I like both teams and bear them no malice.

That being said, this series is the most unexciting thus far. There's been little flow to the games, few good scoring opportunities, and lnot much emotion between these two teams.

I was hoping for more, with the Devils hard-hitting defensive style being pitted against the young Lightning's exciting offence. Instead, only two games in, I found myself dozing off.

Let's hope these clubs can pick it up as this series progresses, otherwise someone'll have to wake me when it's over!

- Mighty Ducks doing it again? Something very weird is going on here. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks weren't supposed to upset the Detroit Red Wings, let alone sweep them in four straight games.

Still, first-round upsets are nothing new. The Ducks had a hot goaltender, caught a Red Wings club feeling too fat and sassy for their own good, and pulled off the feel-good story of the playoffs.

But the Dallas Stars, themselves laden with top-flight talent, weren't supposed to be caught by surprise. They play a more physical style, are younger than the Red Wings and were more hungry. They were supposed to take it to the Ducks, wearing down first-round hero goalie JS Giguere and squeezing the offensive life out of Anaheim with their tenacious checking.

Instead, the Ducks are flying back to Arrowhead Pond after beating the Stars, in their home building, in back-to-back overtime upsets.

Giguere hasn't wilted under the pressure. His teammates are growing more confident in each game and themselves are playing a disciplined, hard-working style that is shutting down the Stars vaunted offence while creating scoring chances against a usually stingy Dallas defence.

Everyone chalked up the Ducks first round upset as a fluke, due to hot goaltending and their heavily favoured opponent being unprepared. But what Anaheim has accomplished against Dallas thus far goes is no fluke.

OK, Mighty Ducks fans, I'm convinced. Regardless of the outcome of this series with Dallas, your team is for real!

- What have you done for us lately? If there's one thing I've noticed about the Denver media, it's how short their collective memories are.

In the wake of the Colorado Avalanche's first-round upset loss to the Minnesota Wild, the Denver press mercilessly ripped the Avs. Woody Paige calling them "Chokingdogs" and "Gagalanche" and other creative names. Mark Kiszla called it the "most upsetting loss ever witnessed by Colorado sports fans". Several other reporters also got into the act in the worst display of "piling on" I've ever seen in the press.

Only Terry Frei of the Denver Post showed restraint, chiding his fellow reporters and Avs fans for their overreaction whilst soberly pointing out the mistakes made by the team that led to their early playoff ouster.

Those who are tearing the Avs a new one should step back and look at their club's history. Since the 1995-96 season, the Avalanche have been a perennial powerhouse in the West. They've won two Stanley Cups, appeared in six Conference Finals, and taken nine division crowns.

They're loaded with all-star talent, most notably goaltender Patrick Roy, defencemen Rob Blake and Adam Foote, and forwards Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Milan Hejduk.

Forsberg just won the Art Ross trophy and could be a lock for the Hart. Hejduk, meanwhile, won the Rocket Richard trophy as the league's top goalscorer.

Sure, their early exit was a shock, and yes, there are some concerns regarding Roy's and Forsberg's continued future with the team, and a surprising lack of scoring depth on the second line.

Still, it isn't the end of the world. GM Pierre Lacroix built the Avs into a very talented club, one that remains a favourite to win the Cup next season. The depth of talent on this roster is of the type most of their rivals can only dream of. And the team's track record since 95-96 is one most other clubs would kill to have.

And it's not like the Avs haven't been in this situation before. Think back five years ago, when an upstart Edmonton Oilers club rode the hot goaltending of Curtis Joseph to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to upset the Avalanche.

Some of those aforementioned reporters who are today dumping on the Avalanche were doing the same thing five years ago, only to turn around three years later to sing the Avs praises when they won their second Cup in 2001.

So a word of advice to fairweather Avs fans and their kin in the media: quit yer bitchin' and enjoy this team!

- Lindros to Toronto? NY Post's Larry Brooks, in a recent rumour about Eric Lindros being on the block, suggested the Toronto Maple Leafs might still have interest in "the Big E".

To which I respond; guess again, Larry!

Yes, Maple Leafs fans were once screeching at GM Pat Quinn to swing a deal with the Philadelphia Flyers for Lindros, but that was two long years ago. Lindros's stock has fallen noticeably since then. Take a poll of Leafs fans, and the majority want nothing to do with number 88.

Brooks suggested the Leafs would have to part with defenceman Tomas Kaberle in any package for Lindros. He forgets, of course, that Kaberle was the deal-breaker between the Leafs and Flyers two years ago. Philly GM Bob Clarke wanted Kaberle in the package, but Quinn didn't want to part with his best puck-moving blueliner. If Quinn didn't wanna part with Kaberle then, why would he want to now?

Besides, the key area the Leafs need to improve isn't at second-line centre, as Brooks suggested, but on the blueline. For years, Toronto has lacked a quality two-way blueliner, a guy who can play over 30 minutes, contribute offensively and play responsibly within his own zone. That's a problem area Lindros won't solve.

Brooks can engage in wishful thinking all summer long, but it won't dump one of the Rangers problems onto the Maple Leafs!

- Armaggedon sounded? NHLPA Honcho Bob Goodenow says there is no way the players will accept a salary cap, and told them they should prepare for a league shutdown that could last up to two years.

The players (whom Goodenow represents) may be "close-minded" about a salary cap, but I can understand their position, even if I don't condone it.

For decades, NHL players were exploited by team owners. That's left a festering wound on their collective psyche. Also, a lot of today's players were around for the 1992 player's strike and/or the 1994-95 lockout. They have long memories and haven't forgotten their treatment by the owners. Those who were around then are passing their mistrust of ownership on to the younger players.

The owners deserve most of the blame for the problems plaguing the league, as well as for the deep mistrust the players feel toward them. Still, both sides must be willing to negotiate and explore all options if they want to avoid a shutdown that could seriously hurt the NHL.