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FLYERS FIRE BARBER: In what is becoming almost an annual tradition in Philadelphia, the coach becomes the scapegoat for yet another lost season by the Flyers. My question here is, how can a guy like Bill Barber be good enough to win the Adams Trophy as Coach-of-the-Year in one season, then turn around and be so terrible at the job he gets fired the next?

The players slammed him, saying it was all Barber's fault the Flyers made a meek first round exit from the 2002 playoffs. They cited a lack of a game-plan, a failure to improve on weaknesses, such as the powerplay, tirades on the bench and demands for the players to work harder. Gee, Barber's style was good enough to turn the Flyers around last season, before injuries scuttled their playoff hopes. It was good enough to have them competing for the lead in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, although they did struggle down the stretch. There may have been something to what the players were saying, but remember, this was a man who recently lost the love of his life to cancer. It was bound to affect him to a degree. How about a little compassion there, guys?

Another question: when is it finally the players fault? Besides Eric Lindros, who ain't around to be made the fall guy anymore. There was Keith Primeau, Mark Recchi, Chris Therien, Rick Tocchet and Brian Boucher, all bitching to the media about Barber's supposedly poor coaching. And I suppose Craig Ramsey was a poor coach too, guys? The same Ramsey who coached you to within a period of making the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago? You remember him? The guy Barber replaced early last season because he supposedly had "lost" you?

And when, oh, when, will Ed Snider finally come to the realization that Bob Clarke has failed to build the Flyers into a Cup champion? When does it finally become Clarke's fault? How many more coaches are going to take the fall for him? How many more coaches are going to be bladed by their players. That's five coaches the Flyers have gone through in as many seasons, going back to 1997, when they fired Terry Murray, the guy who coached them to the Cup Finals. Then there was Wayne Cashman. Then Roger Nielsen. Then Ramsey. Now Barber. Anyone who wants that head coaching job is either desperate, masochistic or suicidal.

But that's the way it is in Flyer land, where coaches take the fall, franchise players are run out of town, hand-picked talent skates away blameless, and the GM is covered with teflon. And they wonder why the Cup never comes back to Philly!

WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH ADAM OATES? Can somebody explain to me how one of the best playmakers in the game, who finished among the top ten in scoring overall in the NHL this past season, can be such a dud come playoff time?

Last season, with the Capitals, Oates played so poorly in Washington's first round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins that coach Ron Wilson cut his ice time. Oates responded sourly, slamming Wilson and demanding a trade. The Capitals did eventually trade Oates at the trade deadline, but not without stripping him of his captaincy as punishment for his comments and making him twist in the wind for much of the season first.

And did anyone notice how much better Washington played after they traded Oates? It certainly wasn't because of the return they got, a goaltending prospect and draft picks. Could it be one of the most unselfish players on the ice is one of the most selfish off it?

There's evidence (albeit circumstantial) to support this. Back in 1997, with the Boston Bruins heading into limbo, Oates got into a nasty contract squabble with then-Bruins GM Harry Sinden, who promptly peddled the veteran centre by the March trade deadline for Jason Allison and Anson Carter. That trade turned the Bruins around, both with the contributions Allison and Carter made, and to the subsequent returns Boston got for each in later deals.

Oates did make the Caps a better club at first, notably in 1998 when Washington went to the Stanley Cup finals, and he potted 17 points in 21 playoffs games. But since there, Oates's post-season performances have tailed off. He chipped in only three points in five playoffs games as the Caps made an early exit in 2000, and had no points in six playoff games last season. This despite 71 points in 1999-2000 and 82 points in 2000-01.

With the Flyers, he was expected to bolster an already deep veteran scoring machine. While he potted 10 points in 14 regular season games, he was the invisible man in the post-season for Philly, with no points for the second year in a row.

It was believed for the last couple of seasons that the reason nobody was willing to trade with Washington for Oates was due to his age (he's pushing forty). It may be, however, that his off-ice squabbles with management and coaches, coupled with his declining post-season efforts, are poisoning the trade market for a player who, despite his age, remains one of the best playmakers in the game.

Way to market yourself there, Adam!

THE "BAY STREET BULLIES". A big surprise in a post-season that has had several thus far has been the play of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

At the beginning of their first-round series against the NY Islanders, many expected a good, fast-paced game between two clubs more known for their offensive games than their physical one. However, the series quickly degenerated into one of the ugliest in recent memory.

Perhaps it was the broken wrist which took Leafs captain and leading scorer Mats Sundin out of the lineup that forced Toronto to crank up their physical game. Maybe they were pissed off at the comments of Islanders GM Mike Milbury, who insisted the on-ice officials were biased in the Leafs favour in the first two games. Possibly they were ticked off at how they were being pushed around when the series shifted back to Long Island for Games Three and Four.

Whatever the reason, the Leafs morphed into Team Nasty by the mid-way point of the series. And while the Islanders weren't exactly choirboys themselves as the series wore on, it was the Maple Leafs who crossed the line into dirty play.

Three notable events stood out. First was Gary Roberts racing from mid-ice to crush Isles defenceman Kenny Jonsson against the boards, slamming Jonsson's oft-concussed head into the glass. The Isles top blueliner, Jonsson was knocked out of the series by Roberts hit, while Roberts pled innocent, claiming he was just "finishing his check".

Next came the submarine hit by Leafs super-pest Darcy Tucker into the knees of Islanders captain Michael Peca. The blow, which was a borderline hipcheck, tore the ACL in Peca's left knee, effectively finishing him for the playoffs, as well as requiring surgery which would take the rest of the off-season to recuperate. Tucker, who verbally warned Peca earlier in the series he was going to "get him", innocently claimed that, like teammate Roberts, he was merely "finishing his check".

Finally, Tucker's teammate and brother-in-law, Shayne Corson, committed what all hockey players considered the ultimate transgression. During a scrap with Islanders blueliner Eric Cairns late in Game Six, Corson, his sweater pulled over his head, kicked Cairns in the leg with his skate. Corson would plead his innocence, saying he "never meant to kick Cairns". Fortunately, the Islanders blueliner wasn't injured by Corson's kick. At least in the case of the latter, Corson was punished by the league, receiving a one game suspension. Roberts and Peca received nothing.

The comments raised by Toronto fans and media defending their players actions were every bit as troubling as those made by Tucker, Roberts and Corson in their own defence. They blamed Jonsson and Peca for the injuries they suffered. Jonsson never should have turned the way he did along the boards, they say, as he should've known someone was coming hard to hit him. Peca should've kept his head up and been aware of Tucker's presence. Corson never meant to kick Cairns. No, he panicked, what with his sweater blinding him. He was afraid he'd get cold-cocked. One commentator suggested Corson wasn't trying to kick Cairns, but rather, he was attempting to "knee him". As if that action were somehow less serious!

I've got new for the Leafs apologists: you're defending the indefensible.

Granted, Jonsson should've been better prepared to be hit from behind when he scooped up the puck along the boards. But who was the guy who came charging in from centre ice to make that hit? If, say, hard-hitting Isles forward Steve Webb crushed Leafs blueliner Tomas Kaberle into the boards in the same manner, and knocked him out of the series, the hue and cry out of Toronto would've been deafening. Roberts could've let up on the hit. He didn't need to drive Jonsson's head into the glass. But he saw his opening, saw Jonsson with his back turned, and blindsided him.

Tucker's low-bridging of Peca wasn't "finishing a check". That was a deliberate attempt to injure. Peca had passed off the puck seconds before Tucker made his check. Indeed, at that point, there was no reason for Tucker to throw such a hit. Peca wasn't carrying the puck at that point. Tucker could've eased off, could've thrown a shoulder into Peca's torso, since they're both roughly the same size.

Like Roberts, however, Tucker saw an opening. He saw a chance to make good on his threat, and acted upon it. You can bet the Toronto media would've been up in arms if it had been Peca who took out Tucker with that low hit, rather than the other way around.

As for Corson, there was, and is, no excuse for kicking an opponent. None. Panicked or not, it's something that simply isn't done. Indeed, at the point Corson's sweater was pulled over his head, Cairns was not only being restrained by a linesman, but saw Corson in a vulnerable position and didn't take advantage of it. Suggesting Corson was trying not to kick Cairns, but instead to knee him, is not only indefensible, but ludicrous. Regardless of the intent, both kicking or kneeing an opponent is wrong.

I'm not suggesting that all Leafs fans are defending their club's actions. Indeed, in talking with several of them over the course of the series, I've found they're appalled and uncomfortable over the antics of their team in this year's post-season. Most Toronto fans are sensible and understand that the actions of Roberts, Tucker and Corson were uncalled for. It's the comments of the guilty parties, and their apologists, that I take exception to.

The Maple Leafs, whom the Toronto press has dubbed "Canada's Team", did nothing but bring shame to themselves in this year's post-season. If anyone wants to find an alternative to dub "Canada's Team", look no further than the talented Ottawa Senators and plucky Montreal Canadiens. The Sens and Habs post-season performances have been a damn sight better than any offerings thus far by the "Maple Goons".

NHL AWARD NOMINEES: The National Hockey League recently announced it's 2002 nominees for their various individual awards. Here then are my picks for each award:

HART TROPHY: Nominees: Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames. Patrick Roy, Colorado Avalanche. Jose Theodore, Montreal Canadiens.

Iginla emerged as a genuine superstar this season, and won the Art Ross as the league scoring champions and the Richard as the game's top goalscorer. Roy, at 37, had the best season of his career, leading all goalies in several categories, and at times carried the Colorado Avalanche this season. Theodore is another emerging superstar, who led the NHL in save percentage and was among the league leaders in wins, shutouts, games played and goals-against average.

While Iginla had a great season, his play wasn't good enough to carry the Flames into the post-season for the first time since 1996. Roy was outstanding, but while he did carry his club when they struggled earlier this season, he wasn't the sole reason for their making the playoffs. Theodore stole probably twenty points for the injury-ravaged Habs this season. To lead the league in save percentage while facing the most shots of any goalie in the league is amazing. He carried the Canadiens to their first playoff appearance in four years. Theodore gets the nod here.

VEZINA TROPHY: Nominees: Patrick Roy, Colorado Avalanche. Jose Theodore, Montreal Canadiens. Sean Burke, Phoenix Coyotes.

Burke was the main man for the Coyotes this season. His strong goaltending and veteran presence was not only responsible for getting Phoenix into the playoffs, but had a calming effect on a young Coyotes club, particularly their blueline corps. Theodore, as noted above, had a great season, led the NHL in save percentage (.931), was the main reason for the Canadiens return to post-season competition, and served notice he is the next great goaltending superstar in the NHL.

However, as good as Burke and Theodore were, their stats don't measure up to Roy's. "St. Patrick" led the NHL in goals-against average (1.94) and shutouts (9), and was second to Theodore in save percentage (.925). Those stats give him the advantage over the others. Roy gets the Vezina.

NORRIS TROPHY: Nominees: Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios, Detroit Red Wings. Rob Blake, Colorado Avalanche.

Blake did a tremendous job in filling the void left in the Avs blueline after Ray Bourque retired. He's still one of the league's best all-round defencemen. He can contribute offensively, play a smart defensive game, and hit like a freight train. Chelios, at 40, is a sentimental favourite. It seemed prior to this season that age and injuries were finally catching up to "Chelli", but he bounced back in 2001-02 with one of his best seasons in years.

As great as Blake and Chelios were this season, Lidstrom was even better. The Red Wings would struggle without Chelios on the blueline, but if they were to lose Lidstrom, it would be devastating. He remains the top rearguard of the Wings, and is, in my opinion, the very best defenceman in the league right now. He should win his second straight Norris trophy.

SELKE TROPHY: Nominees: Craig Conroy, Calgary Flames. Jere Lehtinen, Dallas Stars. Michael Peca, NY Islanders.

Lehtinen was won this award twice before. Despite Dallas's awful season, Lehtinen remains one of the better defensive forwards in the league. Conroy was nominated for a Selke in 1999, and saw his play improve dramatically this season after struggling for the last couple of seasons.

Peca, however, is the more deserving of this award. A previous winner, he returned to the NHL after a year's absence to help lead the NY Islanders back to respectability. In turn, he served notice that he's still one of the best two-way forwards in the game. He plays a more rugged style than Lehtinen and Conroy, which gives him a distinct advantage over them.

CALDER TROPHY: Nominees: Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta Thrashers. Kristian Huselius.

Kovalchuk exploded onto the scene this season, and was on pace to score between 35-40 goals before he went down to a shoulder injury in March. The speedy, cocky young Russian served notice that he'll be a top offensive force in the league for years. Huselius is perhaps the most promising of all the Florida Panthers young players, and should become their best player within the next two years.

But it's Kovalchuk's teammate, Heatley, who deserves the Rookie-of-the-Year nod. Indeed, I would've given it to him even if Kovalchuk hadn't been injured. The two youngsters played on Atlanta's top line and generated most of their offence, but it was Heatley who was the better all-round player of the two. He has size, speed, great vision, deft playmaking skills and a deceptive shot. He's not afraid to play a physical game. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to see him become the Thrashers captain in the next couple of years.

LADY BYNG TROPHY: Nominees: Ron Francis, Carolina Hurricanes. Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche. Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings.

Sakic and Lidstrom have been pillars of good sportsmanship throughout their careers, but in my opinion, there's no better example of this characteristic than the Hurricanes's Francis. He's the epitome of class and dignity in a league that could use more players like him.

ADAMS TROPHY: Nominees: Bobby Francis, Phoenix Coyotes. Robbie Ftorek, Boston Bruins. Brian Sutter, Chicago Blackhawks.

Ftorek coached the Bruins to first overall in the Eastern Conference after they missed the playoffs the year before. Sutter turned a moribund Blackhawks team into a more responsible defensive group, in turn ending a six year absence from post-season competition. But as notable as Ftorek's and Sutter's accomplishments were, they had the benefit of talent-laden rosters. The Bruins with Thornton, Guerin, Samsonov and Murray; the Blackhawks with Eric Daze, Tony Amonte, Phil Housley, and Steve Sullivan.

Francis, on the other hand, had a club with a top goaltender in Sean Burke and little else to work with. His roster was made up of kids and yet-to-emerge talents, and no one gave them a chance of making the post-season. Francis got his young team to buy into his system, and earned their respect. Thanks to him, they not only made the playoffs, but served notice they will be a team to reckon with as they mature. The Coyotes were a fun team to watch this season, thanks for Francis. He's the 2002 Coach of the Year.


MAPLE LEAFS-SENATORS: Gotta give it up to the Maple Leafs! They're doing a great job at bitching to the officials about real and supposed slights that have gone uncalled. Too bad they're not putting as much energy into beating the Senators!

Quite frankly, the Leafs can't help it. They're being out-played and out-classed by an Ottawa club that has shed the label of playoff marshmellows big time in the spring of 2002. Toronto's underwhelming performance in the first three games of this series had left them frustrated, which in turn has led to complaining about not getting a fair shake from the officials.

It's carried over into the Toronto media too, where they've found their own scapegoat for the Leafs woes, that being the goaltending of Curtis Joseph. Poor Cujo is merely experiencing what Felix Potvin, the guy he replaced back in 1998, felt during his final couple of years in Toronto. When you're carrying a defensively-challenged Leafs team, they love you, but start to struggle from years of carrying the Leafs, and they'll turn on you like a pack of rabid dogs.

While the Leafs throw hissy-fits at the officials, pray for the return of team captain and scoring leaders Mats Sundin from a broken wrist, and try to get away with more borderline dirty play, the Senators are the very mark of cool confidence. Sure, Hockey Night in Canada commentator and unabashed Leafs supporter Don Cherry can label the Sens "sickening" for not retaliating to the Leafs goonish tactics, but most know that it's those who keep their composure that come out on top in high-pressure situations. Even Cherry understands this, it's just frustrating for him that his Leafs are getting embarrassed by a team full of foreigners who won't be goaded into dumb retaliation penalties.

If the Maple Leafs are to have any chance, they must tone down their over-the-top "Bay Street Bullies" antics and play tough, disciplined hockey. The Senators, for the most part, have been skating rings around the Leafs, and only a strong checking game will slow them down and give Toronto snipers like Gary Roberts and Alexander Mogilny a chance to capitalize.

Otherwise, the Leafs hopes of ending their 35-year Cup drought in 2002 will come to a screeching, ugly halt.

CANADIENS-HURRICANES: There are those in the media who are comparing the performance of Montreal netminder Jose Theodore this spring to that of Ken Dryden way back in the spring of 1971, when he backstopped an underdog Habs team to their "Miracle Cup".

This year's Canadiens are still a long way from winning the Cup, but if Theodore should carry them to the 25th championship in franchise history, it will be more notable than the '71 Cup win. This year's Canadiens, while plucky and inspirational, are less talented than Dryden's 1971 crew, who possessed notable Hall-of-Famers like Jean Beliveau, Frank Mahovlich, Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire, Jacques Laperriere and Guy Lapointe, most of whom were in their prime when Dryden was performing his miracles in goal.

The Hurricanes have to be feeling frustrated. Three games into this series, they have out-played and out-shot the Canadiens by a huge margin, and by rights, should be up 3-zip. Yet they find themselves not only down 2-1 in the series, but only potted four goals during that time. This from a team that possesses substantial scoring prowess in power forward Jeff O'Neill, ageless playmaker Ron Francis, fleet-footed Sami Kapanen, seasoned veteran Rod Brind'amour, and emerging stars Erik Cole and Bates Battaglia.

But it's been Theodore who's been slamming the door on the Hurricanes offence. He has to be getting into the heads of the Carolina forwards. They must be wondering what they have to do to beat down this red-white-and blue brick wall guarding the Habs goal.

Theodore isn't the only story coming out of this series. Cancer survivor and Habs captain Saku Koivu continues his amazing run, placing among playoff leaders in scoring, and leading his club through inspiration. Forward Donald Audette, off his own near-death experience back in December, and admittedly still struggling with limited range of motion in his left hand, has also been among Montreal's scoring leaders. Rugged blueliner Sheldon Souray is playing with a cast over his left wrist and through the pain of a recently dislocated right shoulder, and ageless wonder Doug Gilmour, a player most NHL teams considered washed-up last summer, is contributing timely points and leadership.

As for the Hurricanes, in addition to scratching their heads to find a solution to beating Theodore, they're under scrutiny as to who will be their starting goalie for the rest of the series. Kevin Weekes, who relieved Arturs Irbe mid-way through the 'Canes first-round series against the Devils, has struggled to carry over his strong play from that round into this match-up with Montreal. Now, down in the series, speculation is brewing Irbe could be back.

RED WINGS-BLUES: Heading into Game Three, the Blues were in trouble, down 2 games to none against the Red Wings, and struggling to find their offensive game. In the first two games, Detroit's strong defensive play and the goaltending of Dominik Hasek had St. Louis forwards singing the blues.

However, back in front of their hometown fans for the next two games, and with their backs to the wall, the Blues came out strong in Game Three, taking advantage of several Wings penalties, and finally solved "the Dominator" as they romped to a 6-1 victory and have made it a series.

It was the Blues speed and tenacious forechecking that gave them the clear advantage over the Wings, and finally drove Hasek from the net. Indeed, this game could be considered the series turning point, provided the Blues can carry over that performance in subsequent games in this series.

But while the Wings may be feeling some fatigue, and it's known some of their veterans are nursing aches and pains, one should never count them out, especially considering the performance of their captain, Steve Yzerman.

Everyone knows Yzerman is nursing a bad knee, one that has troubled him since prior to the Salt Lake City Olympics, but he's been without question the best player on the Wings in this year's playoffs. As more than one commentator has noted, Yzerman has been a better player with one good leg than most have been with two. It's a display of courage, determination and talent not seen since Bobby Orr's heyday with the Bruins of the early 1970s.

AVALANCHE-SHARKS: This series has been a barn-burner thus far, easily the most exciting series of the second round. There's been plenty of scoring in the first three games, all of them lop-sided, with the Sharks holding a 2-1 advantage in the series as of this writing.

Goaltending was expected to be a factor in this series, but certainly not in the way it's been thus far. To be kind, the netminding of both clubs has not been up to speed. The Sharks Evgeny Nabokov, who was cool as a cucumber in staring down the Phoenix Coyotes in Round One, has been shaky against the Avalanche. That would be a problem for the Sharks, except Avs goalie- and playoff legend - Patrick Roy has been equally as brutal.

The result has been plenty of goals and lots of thrills for hockey fans. It's been a see-saw battle offensively between these two clubs, but there could be a problem for the defending Cup champion Avalanche. The top Sharks scoring forwards - team captain Owen Nolan, Teemu Selanne and Vincent Damphousse are lighting the lamp with more frequency than they did in their first-round series against Phoenix.

Unless Roy regains his three-time Smythe-winning form soon, or unless Colorado's forwards can start racking up more 8-goal games against Nabokov like they did in Game Two of this series, the Avs defence of the Stanley Cup could come to an end much sooner than anticipated.

BLUES FALL IN FIVE TO RED WINGS: Going into Game Four of this series, it was believed the Blues may have forced a turning point in their matchup against the Wings. After dropping the first two games, the Blues stormed back at home in Game Three with a convincing 6-1 victory, and their confidence restored.

However, that confidence vanished in the face of a 3-2 Red Wings victory, made all the more painful by the loss of team captain Chris Pronger with a season-ending knee injury. Pronger had attempted to check limping Wings captain Steve Yzerman, but Yzerman ducked, sending the big blueliner hurtling ass-over-applecart onto the ice. Pronger's resultant knee injury was the final nail in the Blues coffin; all it took was Game Five for the Wings to bury them, which they did with an easy 4-0 victory. Once again, the old adage is proven: the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Now, the Blues head into the off-season with big decisions to be made. Who's trade bait? Who's not going to be re-signed? What kids are going to get moved up? What free agents will the Blues pursue in the off-season? GM Larry Pleau must choose wisely, as his future employment could well depend on what he does this summer.

The Red Wings, meanwhile, advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1998. They may be a team with aging veterans, several of whom are on the limp as the playoffs progress, but their age and ailments have not proven to be a factor thus far. The Wings remain the favourite to win it all, and by the way they've looked thus far, most aren't going to bet against them.

AVS ON THE BUBBLE? In a series that is a throw-back to the wide-open offensive days of the 1980s, the San Jose Sharks have emerged after five games with a 3-2 series lead on the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Colorado Avalanche.

In my preview of this series, I stated goaltending would be the key to who wins this matchup. As I also noted in an earlier Soapbox article, it most certainly has, but not in the way I, nor anyone else for that matter, expected.

Sharks goalie Evgeny Nabokov has been shaky at times, but compared to the surprisingly weak efforts of playoff legend Patrick Roy, the San Jose netminder looks like the second coming of Terry Sawchuk.

Roy's performance has been, in a word, awful. While his complaints about his team's struggling defensive play have merit, he's never had a problem in the past carrying teams with defence concerns to playoff glory. Indeed, this present Avs squad could be considered one of the best teams he's ever played for in his career. The whole point of his passing on Canada's Olympic team was to be better prepared for post-season competition, but while he had perhaps the best regular season of his long career in 2001-02, his play in the 2002 playoffs has done little to validate his decision.

Still, Roy's average play would mean nothing if the Sharks weren't able to capitalize. Unfortunately for the Avalanche, this San Jose club bears little resemblance to the "can't shoot straight" gang they faced way back in 1999. While the Avs offence has been effective in this series, the Sharks have thus far proven to be more lethal. Heading back to the "Shark Tank" for Game Six, the Avalanche have their backs to the wall, and must dig down for what could be the game of their lives if they hope to continue their defence of the Cup.

LIVE BY THE SWORD, DIE BY THE SWORD: A guy who's had more dives than the Canadian Olympic springboard team, and who has symbolized the "Bay Street Bullies" the Maple Leafs have become this post-season, got his just desserts in Game Five of the Ottawa-Toronto series.

With the score knotted at 2 goals apiece late in the third period of Game Five, Leafs forward Darcy Tucker was pursuing a loose puck along the boards in his own zone. Senators forward and captain Daniel Alfredsson hit Tucker with a questionable shoulder check that sent the Leafs forward crashing into the boards. Tucker lay on the ice, writhing in pain, while Alfredsson, having recovered the puck, would skate in unmolested to score the winning goal, thus giving his club a 3 games to 2 lead in the series.

The Leafs and their fans were furious, crying that Alfredsson should've been penalized for hitting from behind, or at the very least, boarding, which would've warranted a two-minute penalty. Perhaps, if this hit occurred in the first period, the Leafs would've got their wish. But that late in a game, with NHL officiating being the way it is, the referees were loathe to make a potentially game-changing call.

Toronto players and fans also want to know why the refs didn't take note of Tucker laying, obviously injured, on the ice. In all honesty, the referees probably didn't believe he was hurt. As noted above, Tucker has a dubious reputation as one of the biggest "divers" in the game. Practically every time Tucker gets checked, he goes crashing to the ice, then writhes around as if mortally wounded, looking for a penalty call. When he doesn't get it, the dimunitive Leafs forward will jump up and skate off, but not before screaming at officials for not punishing his supposed tormentors.

In this instance, Tucker was legitimately injured, suffering a broken bone in his left shoulder blade and a dislocated left shoulder, thus knocking him out of further playoff competition this spring. Poetic justice, as Tucker ended Isles captain Mike Peca's playoffs with a low hit in the first round Leafs-Islanders serie, plus he gave Washington Capitals blueliner Sergei Gonchar a concussion back in March when he left his feet to hit the bigger Gonchar.

Naturally, Tucker whined about lack of fair treatment by the league, saying there is one set of rules for him and one for everyone else. He defended his style, insisting he's not a dirty player but rather one who plays gritty, "old-time" hockey. Hmmmm, sounds like Tucker is challenging the spirit of Theo Fleury. You say Fleury's not dead? Perhaps not, but his NHL career certainly may well be. I digress.

The Leafs and their fans in general, and Darcy Tucker in particular, learned the hard way that this year's Senators are pushovers no longer. As for Alfredsson, let's just say that he was "finishing his check" and leave it at that. Maybe that'll mollify Tucker and his supporters, who loved to throw that comment around in defending the pesky Leaf forward's questionable tactics this season.

LATE PERIOD COLLAPSE TURNING POINT IN HABS-CANES SERIES? Things were certainly going the Montreal Canadiens way early in the third period of Game Four of their series against the Carolina Hurricanes. Up two games to one in the series, they were leading 3-0 and appeared on the verge of taking an almost insurmountable 3 games to 1 lead back to Carolina.

Then, disaster struck. Habs coach Michel Therrien, upset over a penalty to Montreal defenceman Stephane Quintal, earned a bench minor for his arm-waving protest antics, which set up a 5-on-3 powerplay for the Hurricanes. Scoring to make it 3-1, the 'Canes were on their way back.

Sloppy defensively play, and an average third period performance by normally rock-solid Habs netminder Jose Theodore, saw the Hurricanes rally to not only tie the game, but force overtime, which they won 4-3 on a Nic Wallin point shot. Instead of facing elimination, the Hurricanes had tied the series.The Canadiens and their supporters were in shock.

Now come the questions and self-doubt. Has this come-from-behind victory in Game Four tilted the series momentum in the Hurricanes favour? Is Theodore burning out from the heavy workload he's faced, not just in the playoffs, but all season long? Consistently outshot throughout the playoffs, have the Canadiens habit of living dangerously defensively finally caught up to them? Have the Hurricanes finally shaken the offensive monkey off their backs? Has going back to former starting goalie Arturs Irbe given Carolina more strength in goal? Have the Canadiens, the most inspirational team of the playoffs, finally run out of miracles?

It's all leading to an exciting series finish, but one the Canadiens and their fans never envisioned going into the third period of Game Four.

WILSON GETS THE AXE IN WASHINGTON: "Veteran dissatisfaction" is the reason given by the Washington Capitals in their surprise firing of head coach Ron Wilson last Friday. Does anyone else other than me find it odd that it took Caps management an entire month before deciding to give Wilson his walking papers? They could take a lesson from the Philadelphia Flyers, who know when to chop a coach whenever veteran players are dissatisfied with their coaching. Apparently, neither superstar Jaromir Jagr nor flamboyant owner Ted Leonsis had any input in the decision. And if you believe that, well, there's a bridge in Brooklyn that's for sale...

Evidently, the Caps want to get into the "hire-a-coach" bonanza presently taking place, what with the Rangers, Flyers and Stars all trying to land notable bench bosses such as Ken Hitchcock, Larry Robinson, Herb Brooks, Pat Burns, Guy Carbonneau, Dave Tippett, Bryan Trottier and Ted Nolan.

Whoever they hire, let's hope he too doesn't fall victim to "veteran dissatisfaction".

PANTHERS HIRE FORMER BOLTS GM, FIRE FLETCHER: Poor Chuck Fletcher. He had the unenviable task of trying to clean up the mess the previous Florida Panthers management had left him, and he had to do the dirty work of dealing away Pavel Bure and other veterans to commence yet another rebuilding phase for the Panthers.

But does he get the opportunity to even try to turn things around? Nope, instead, the Panthers ownership hand him his walking papers and turn to a guy who couldn't right the Tampa Bay Lightning's long-listing ship in Rick Dudley. All class, that Panthers organization.

If I were Dudley, I wouldn't get too comfy in that GM chair, especially with Iron Mike Keenan around, as we all know what a good "GM's coach" Keenan can be. Not to mention that supportive ownership he'll be working for!

JUSTICE IS SERVED! Sometimes, things work out for those who get the shaft. As was the case for the country of Slovakia, which was screwed over in Olympic Ice Hockey because too many NHL teams wouldn't release their players to participate. This decision, made because the NHL stupidly allowed their regular season schedule to proceed during the first week of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, when Slovakia (but not Canada, USA, Russian, Sweden, Finland or the Czech Republic) were playing, contributed in eliminating them from competition in the Olympic round-robin.

That was wrong, and never would've been allowed to happen had Slovakia been considered among the more elite hockey playing nations. So I was pleased to hear the news that Slovakia, with most of their top players available, won the 2002 World Championships.

It was that tiny nation's first ever gold medal at this tournament. Peter Bondra and Ziggy Palffy, two players who were among those either not released for Olympic competition, or only allowed to play one game in Salt Lake, led the Slovaks to a 4-3 victory over Russia in the gold medal game.

Well done, Slovakia! Yeah, it's not the same as winning an Olympic medal, but hopefully, this will go a long way toward this country getting the recognition and respect it deserves from the hockey world!


SHARKS SNOWED UNDER BY AVALANCHE IN SEVEN: Facing their second straight seventh game in the 2002 playoffs, the Colorado Avalanche squeezed out a 1-0 victory to defeat the Sharks and march on to the Conference Finals for the fourth consecutive season.

Thanks to the usual stellar performances in big-game scenarios by their three best players - goaltender Patrick Roy, and forwards Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, the Avs showed a rising young San Jose team why they're the defending Cup champions. They played a strong two-way game, making the most of their opportunities. Roy, in particular, displayed once again why he's considered the greatest goaltender in playoff history, again overcoming weaker performances early in the series to come through when the Avs needed him most.

The Sharks can point with pride to the notable improvement they made this season, including in this spring's post-season, but this close defeat to the Avs might spell the end of Darryl Sutter's tenure as their head coach. Sutter has played a major part in the development of the Sharks from a marginal playoff team to a legitimate playoff contender, but he's been unable to get them over the hump of the second round. They may also be some personnnel changes among the Sharks themselves, what with forward Teemu Selanne and blueliner Gary Suter eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

Facing the Avalanche in the Conference finals is an old foe, the Detroit Red Wings. These two clubs have established one of the best modern-day rivalries in the NHL, dating back to the 1996 Western Conference Finals. There's a lot of emotional history between these two teams, one considered the favourite to win it all, the other the defending champion equally determined to retain their title. For playoff hockey at it's best, look no further than this matchup!

SENATORS SAG IN SEVEN TO MAPLE LEAFS: For the third consecutive season, the Toronto Maple Leafs bounced their inter-provincial rivals, the Ottawa Senators, from post-season competition. In what will go down as one of the grittiest performances ever in Toronto hockey history, the banged-up Maple Leafs, missing seven regulars from their lineup due to injury, rallied from a 3 games to 2 series deficit to defeat the Senators in seven games.

On paper, Ottawa has more depth in pure talent, and were far healthier than their rivals. They were riding high from an easy first round victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, while the Leafs were coming off a seven-game war against the NY Islanders. Sens goalie Patrick Lalime had the best goaltending record of the 2002 playoffs, while Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph has looked shaky at times. Ottawa's top offensive players, who had been snake-bitten in previous playoff years, had come alive in 2002, while most of Toronto's best forwards were inconsistent. The Sens were disciplined, the Leafs were thuggish. Everything, it seemed, tilted in Ottawa's favour.

However, led by alternate captain Gary Roberts, the Maple Leafs displayed the two characteristics the Senators were lacking: heart and hard work. Following the heart-and-soul effort by Roberts, the Leafs stepped up their performances and seemingly got stronger as the series progressed. Even as players continued to drop from the Leafs lineup with injuries, it seemed to only make the rest work harder to off-set the absences.

For the Sens, this defeat to the Leafs goes down as perhaps the most heartbreaking. It will bring about another long summer of questions for Ottawa. Are big changes in the workds? Will they fire Jacques Martin? Who could they bring in as a replacement that can push this Sens roster over the top? Who will come in as general manager to replace Marshall Johnston? Can they afford to re-sign their restricted free agents?

As for the Maple Leafs, they march on to the Conference Finals and their continuing quest to end their 35-year Cup drought. However, if they thought the last two series were tough, the upcoming series is going to be even tougher, especially if it takes injured stars like Mats Sundin longer to return to the roster than expected. Do they have enough left in their battered bodies?

HURRICANES BLOW OUT HABS IN SIX: The "feel-good" story of the 2002 playoffs came to an end this past Monday, when the Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Montreal Canadien 8-2 to win their best-of-seven second round series 4 games to 2.

It was a disappointing finish for a Canadiens team that was carried by goaltender Jose Theodore into the post-season, who were without team captain Saku Koivu, winger Donald Audette and gritty blueliner Sheldon Souray for most of the year, and weren't given much of a chance to get past the first round.

Yet the plucky Habs, buoyed by Theodore's hot goaltending, the return of Koivu, Audette and Souray, the potential emergence of forward Richard Zednik as a scoring star, and the re-emergence of veteran centre Doug Gilmour, won seven straight games to cement the club's first playoff berth in four years, then went on to upset the heavily favoured Boston Bruins in the first round.

Much has been made of the fourth game of this series against the Hurricanes, how head coach Michel Therrien's temper-tantrum created the bench minor that set the wheels in motion for a Carolina comeback. Therrien made a mistake, but it wasn't as if it was late in the game with the Habs barely clinging to a lead, or in overtime. The Canadiens still had a two-goal lead in the third after the Hurricanes scored on the resultant powerplay. The problem was Montreal, a smaller, still rebuilding team, was simply out of gas.

Theodore had faced a blizzard of shots in the post-season, and as good as he is, he's only human and bound to wear down. His teammates took a lot of heat for not helping him out, but quite frankly, they had been battered by the Bruins in the first round, and the bigger, faster Hurricanes simply ground them down.

Give full marks to the Hurricanes for not deviating from their game plan. They didn't get flustered, even when down 3-0 in that pivotal fourth game. They kept up their attack on the Canadiens, knowing the Habs would eventually tire, and then made good on their opportunities.

Many are surprised by how well the 'Canes have done, but for those who've paid any attention to the Hurricanes, it's not shocking at all to see them in the Conference finals. Yes, there may still be questions regarding their goaltending, but at least they've got the depth between the pipes to carry them. Their blueline may be non-descript, but they're playing a disciplined defensive game. It's their offensive depth, the fact they can roll out three dangerous lines, that's made them a force in this year's playoffs.

Some observers have poo-poo'd Carolina as a hockey market. Granted, there are many locals who have yet to discover this promising Hurricanes team, but their fan base is growing. And those that have followed the 'Canes since they moved from Hartford five years ago are among the most loyal, knowledgeable fans in the game.

By the end of this post-season, one of the best-kept secrets in the NHL will be well known: the Carolina Hurricanes are a damn good hockey team.

BLUES FALL IN FIVE TO RED WINGS: Going into Game Four of this series, it was believed the Blues may have forced a turning point in their matchup against the Wings. After dropping the first two games, the Blues stormed back at home in Game Three with a convincing 6-1 victory, and their confidence restored.

However, that confidence vanished in the face of a 3-2 Red Wings victory, made all the more painful by the loss of team captain Chris Pronger with a season-ending knee injury. Pronger had attempted to check limping Wings captain Steve Yzerman, but Yzerman ducked, sending the big blueliner hurtling ass-over-applecart onto the ice. Pronger's resultant knee injury was the final nail in the Blues coffin; all it took was Game Five for the Wings to bury them, which they did with an easy 4-0 victory. Once again, the old adage is proven: the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Now, the Blues head into the off-season with big decisions to be made. Who's trade bait? Who's not going to be re-signed? What kids are going to get moved up? What free agents will the Blues pursue in the off-season? GM Larry Pleau must choose wisely, as his future employment could well depend on what he does this summer.

The Red Wings, meanwhile, advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1998. They may be a team with aging veterans, several of whom are on the limp as the playoffs progress, but their age and ailments have not proven to be a factor thus far. The Wings remain the favourite to win it all, and by the way they've looked thus far, most aren't going to bet against them.



LEAFS-HURRICANES: It was looking mighty grim for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they headed into Carolina to face the Hurricanes in Game Five of their Eastern Conference finals matchup. The 'Canes, thanks to a disciplined defensive system, strong goaltending, and opportunistic offence, had swept the previous two games in Toronto to take a 3 games to 1 series lead, placing themselves one victory away from a berth in the Stanley Cup finals.

However, in Game Five, the Hurricanes faced a roadblock in the form of Leafs netminder Curtis Joseph. With his club's season on the line, "Cujo" finally stepped up with a performance worthy of those he's been famous for in the past. With his team outplayed at every turn, Joseph delivered a shutout performance and made Darcy Tucker's first period goal the only one that mattered, as the Leafs squeaked out a 1-0 victory to stay alive and take the series back to Toronto for Game Six.

While Leafs fans may be rejoicing, there must acknowledge two sobering thoughts. First, the Hurricanes were the better team in Game Five, dominating the Leafs in every category except the scoreboard. If not for Joseph's heroics, the Leafs would be returning to T.O. to clean out their lockers and prep for tee-times, rather than to fight another day. If they allow the 'Canes to dominate them in the same manner in Game Six, it will be all over for the Maple Leafs.

Which leads to the second sobering thought: in their previous series victories this spring, the Hurricanes clinched both by beating the New Jersey Devils and Montreal Canadiens in their respective arenas in...Game Six. In other words, home ice advantage means nothing. The Hurricanes have proven to be a better road team in these playoffs than they are a home team. If any Leafs fans believe the sixth game is an automatic victory for their team, they'd best snap themselves out of that fantasy right now. If the Leafs are to win, they must all step up and match the Game Five performance of Curtis Joseph.

WINGS-AVS: The best playoff matchup of the past ten years continues to roll along as most expected. After four hard-fought games, the series between the defending Cup champion Colorado Avalanche and the favourite Detroit Red Wings is knotted at two games apiece.

What hasn't been expected is the less-than-stellar performances of the goaltenders of both clubs, and the Avalanche's struggles to hold onto a lead.

Colorado's Patrick Roy was outstanding in Games Three and Four, average in Game One, and simply awful in Game Two. In the latter, he was responsible for two of the three goals, the first coming from a bad clearing attempt which left him caught out of position for a Kirk Maltby short-handed goal, and saw the tying goal bank in off his pads after caroming off the end boards.

Detroit's Dominik Hasek hasn't had an easy go of it, either. Throughout this series, he's been spectacular at times, awkward at others. He certainly hasn't been playing like the legendary "Dominator" of yore. He's been diving in vain attempts to draw penalties, and barking at the referees and his teammates like a junkyard dog. At this point, neither goalie appears to have an advantage over the other.

The more perplexing aspect of this series is the Avs aforementioned inability to hold a lead. In every game of this series, the Avalanche jump out to the lead, but are unable to build upon it. The Wings invariably score the tying goal, and the offence essentially becomes a "punch-counterpunch" style. Only in Game Four were the Avs able to build on a lead, in the third period, but not before the Wings made it interesting late by scoring to move within one goal of tying and sending it into overtime.

Now, with the Western Conference Finals now down to a "best-of-three" matchup, one has to wonder ifeither goalie shake off the inconsistency that has plagued them, and if the Avalanche can finally build on, and hold, a lead as the series progresses.

STARS DECIDE NOT TO RE-SIGN BELFOUR: It was a painful decision reached by Dallas Stars GM Doug Armstrong, but one that needed to be done. The club announced they would not re-sign Ed Belfour, the impending free agent goaltender who was arguably the biggest reason the Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999.

Belfour's performance fell off noticeably this past season, to the point where promising backup Marty Turco out-played "the Eagle". It was Eddie's slide that was a contributing factor to the Stars missing the post-season.

Armstrong's announcement brought out a rush of articles speculating as to where Belfour could end up, and how much his slump this past season, as well as his prickly personality and off-ice antics, will affect potential offers.

It may take Belfour a little longer to get signed this summer, but make no mistake, he will be snapped up by one of the deep-pocketed clubs out there. Just don't expect him to sign with anyone asking him to tutor a promising young goalie, or to split the duties. Eddie will want to go someplace where he's the unquestioned number one netminder, so that could rule out the New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues. It's unlikely he'll want to play for Ken Hitchcock again, given the sometimes tempestuous relationship between the two in Dallas, so Philadelphia is doubtful.

Best bet? I'd say Toronto, if the Leafs decide to let Curtis Joseph walk away via free agency.

GUERIN TO SEEK $10 MILLION PER SEASON: At least, that's what several media outlets are claiming. Apparently, Guerin wants a four year, $40 million US deal.

If that's the case, expect him to be playing elsewhere other than in Boston next season. While Guerin isn't exactly the type of player worthy of that much money (and very few are!), one can't blame him for asking for that much. He knows there are several clubs who'll get into a bidding war for his services, and with the future of the NHL cloudy beyond the 2003-04 season, he's wise to snap up what he can, in case the fallout from the impending war between the league and the player's association makes it more difficult for players to get that much money.

This should also mean the Bruins will more likely re-sign goaltender Byron Dafoe, as they'll obviously have more free cash available to lock him up to a new deal.

THE RANGERS SEARCH FOR A NEW COACH: So lemme get this straight: New York Rangers GM Glen Sather has spent the past six weeks interviewing potential candidates like Ken Hitchcock, Herb Brooks, Pat Burns, and Ted Nolan, yet he still hasn't found anyone suitable enough to coach his team of over-rated, overpaid under-achievers?

In Hitchcock's and Burns's cases, their demands to play a more responsible defensive game makes them unpalatable for the supposedly offensive-minded Rangers. Yes, heaven forbid, the Rangers loafers actually play a better defensive game. Heaven forbid they play for a coach that, you know, might actually make demands of them.

I could understand not going with Nolan. While the reason for not hiring him was given as his being out of the league for too long, the real reason is Nolan works best with young, promising teams, like the one he had in Buffalo. An older, veteran-laden club of softies like the Rangers would tune him out in a heartbeat.

I'm still not certain why Slats took a pass on Brooks. Here's a guy who favours a more wide-open style, who has the respect of many players, and could've been used to lure American-born free agents such as Bill Guerin and Tony Amonte to the Big Apple. My guess is Brooks's biggest knock is he's not a general manager's "yes-man", and isn't afraid to speak his mind.

Instead, the latest rumour has Sather himself stepping behind the bench to do the job himself. On the surface, this doesn't seem like a bad idea. Everyone on the Rangers roster certainly respects him. He's got a great coaching record from his days behind the Edmonton Oilers bench in the 1980s, and like his players, would favour a more offensive style of game.

However, one must remember it's been over 13 years since Sather last coached in the NHL. The game has changed significantly in that time. The last time Slats coached anything was back in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, where he was beaten by an American team coached by Ron Wilson, who was recently fired by the Washington Capitals.

Would Wilson look better behind the Rangers bench than Sather? Possibly, but remember, Wilson is one of those coaches who favours a disciplined defensive style, which is a no-no on Broadway.

UPDATE ON MICHAEL PECA: the NY Islanders captain, who sustained a serious knee injury thanks to a "submarine" hit by Toronto's Darcy Tucker in the first round of the Leafs-Isles playoff series, underwent major reconstructive surgery on his left knee this past week. Doctors reports Peca could miss the opening three months of the 2002-03 season.

Meanwhile, the guy responsible for Peca's plight, Tucker, made a "miraculous" recovery from a supposed broken bone in his shoulder that he sustained from a check by Daniel Alfredsson in the Ottawa-Toronto series. He returned to action in the second game of the Leafs-Hurricanes Conference Finals.

While I'm not one to advocate violence and thuggery in the NHL, I would suggest that Mr. Tucker should take some time this summer and reflect on his actions during this past season, including the playoffs. They say what goes around comes around, and Tucker nearly got a whiff of that when he sustained his injury.

One thing he should reflect on is why so many are sympathetic of Peca's plight, but hardly anyone gave a damn outside of Toronto when he got hurt.

PETA UPSET OVER WINGS FANS OCTOPUS-TOSSING FETISH: The National Hockey League took a major step toward the big time when it incurred the wrath of PETA.

Well, actually, it was the Detroit Red Wings who got the good folks at PETA all worked up. Apparently, they're upset with the team for encouraging their fans to engage in octopus-tossing contests. A spokeswoman for PETA said the organization was sending a letter of protest to Wings owner Mike Illitch, after getting "numerous complaints" from animal rights activists. "Flinging an octopus is no more acceptable than hurling kittens and puppies," said the spokeswoman.

While I'm all for cracking down on folks who are unnecessarily cruel to animals, I think the good folks at PETA have taken leave of their senses on this one.

It would be cruelty if they were throwing the still-struggling, gasping-for-life mollusk around. In this case, the octopi aren't alive; they're long dead and well-cooked. If the octopus were an endangered species, then by all means, crack down on this activity. But octopus aren't endangered, and what Wings fans do with their cooked food is their own business. If anything, Red Wings fans should be scolded by their mothers for playing with their food.