And then there were two...
The New Jersey Devils and Anaheim Mighty Ducks meet in a Stanley Cup finals that no one predicted. Sure, there were Devils fans who believed their team had the parts to get to the Finals for the third time in four years and for the fourth time in the team's history. And yes, there were a small handful of faithful Ducks fans who looked at their club's second-half regular season record and felt their team had a good chance. But I doubt there was anyone who predicted these two clubs would meet in the Finals.
Speaking of predictions, my record has tailed off as the playoffs progressed. From a sparkling 6-2 in the first round, I've gone from 2-4 in the second round to an ugly "oh-fer" in the Conference Finals, which is the first time I've failed to predict at least one Conference Finals series accurately.
Which proves only one thing...in the immortal words of Toe Blake, "predictions are for gypsies".
But hey, they're still fun to make, I don't lose money on them (since I gave up gambling over twenty years ago after losing too much money at poker), and I'm still better than Broadcastmonsters Face-off's "Orb"...
COACHING: This will be New Jersey's Pat Burns's second trip to the Stanley Cup Finals since he turned the trick as a rookie head coach back in 1989 with the Montreal Canadiens. Burns came out on the losing end back then and obviously hopes for a better outcome this time around. Thus far, he's done a terrific job, particularly in rallying his troops after blowing a 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
Anaheim's rookie coach, Mike Babcock, is making his first appearance in the Finals, but it would be folly to assume he'll be out-matched by Burns's experience. After all, Babcock's Ducks defeated the Jacques Lemaire-coached Minnesota Wild, no small feat considering Lemaire's credentials. Before that, Babcock guided his club past the first and second seeds in the West, one of them being the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. EDGE: NONE.
GOALTENDING: The Devils Martin Brodeur is making his fourth appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, having backstopped the Devils to two Cup championships in 1995 and 2000. Brodeur is a veteran in his prime, who has overcome considerable turmoil in his personal life to give thus far the best playoff performance of his career. Brodeur knows what it takes to be a winner, and it would be easy to give him the nod here.
However, he and his teammates are facing a young goalie who is making a name for himself in playoff lore in Jean-Sebastien Giguere. He almost single-handedly carried the Ducks to an upset four-game sweep of the Detroit Red Wings, and while his teammates have improved noticeably as the playoffs have progressed, Giguere's outstanding play has been the significant factor in his team's subsequent victories over heavily favoured Dallas and the tight-checking young Wild. His play has been compared to Ken Dryden in 1971 and Patrick Roy in 1986, two goalies who led over-matched Montreal Canadiens clubs to improbably Cup victories. There's no reason to believe he cannot continue those heroics against New Jersey. EDGE: NONE.
DEFENCE: The Mighty Ducks blueline corps has improved with each successive series, no small feat considering most of them are considered unknowns or average at best. Former defensive liability Sandis Ozolinsh has turned into the Ducks best two-way blueliner, while veteran Keith Carney has been a standout when matched against his opponent's best forwards (Detroit's Sergei Fedorov, Dallas's Mike Modano, Minnesota's Marian Gaborik) in these playoffs. Youngsters Vitaly Vishnevski and Kurt Sauder have played beyond their years. The Ducks defence corps has bought into Babcock's trapping system, collapsing down low around their goaltender to limit scoring chances and sweep away rebounds.
Admirable as the Ducks defencemen have played, they're up against perhaps the best blueline corps in the NHL. Talented, strong and experienced, the New Jersey defence is the most intimidating bunch the Ducks have yet to face in these playoffs. Veteran captain Scott Stevens shows no signs of slowing down, Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski are always dangerous offensively, while Colin White and Ken Daneyko play a bruising stay-at-home style. Toss in additonal depth in Oleg Tverdovksy and Richard Smehlik, and the Mighty Ducks forwards will find scoring chances tougher to come by in this series than in their previous rounds. EDGE: DEVILS.
OFFENCE: This is the one area that can be considered the Devils and Ducks weaknesses. Only two of the Devils forwards are among the top ten playoff scorers, and they're behind three players who are on teams that were eliminated from post-season play. Their two top regular season scorers, Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez, aren't even in the top 40 playoff scorers. Worse, their third-best offensive forward and fourth leading scorer, Joe Nieuwendyk, suffered a knee injury in the Conference Finals which could sideline him for the opening games of the Finals, if not the entire series. That could be a serious blow for the Devils, as Nieuwendyk was also a leader who contributed in other areas, notably the faceoff circle.
The Ducks offensive game hasn't fared much better in the playoffs. Only two forwards, Adam Oates and Mike Leclerc, are among the top twenty playoff scorers, and aren't even among the top ten. Team captain and superstar Paul Kariya and linemate, former Devils Petr Sykora, aren't among the top 35. A cause for concern? Not really. It's indicative of how much the forwards have bought into their defensive system. When one compares both clubs, there isn't much difference, however, the injury to Nieuwendyk could be a significant factor, especially if Elias or Gomez fail to step up. With Paul Kariya always a danger, and the fact the Ducks will have had 10 days to rest and heal their bruises from their previous series, the advantage, although slight, appears to tilt in the Ducks favour. EDGE: MIGHTY DUCKS.
ANALYSIS: Given the experience and defensive depth of the New Jersey Devils, it would be easy to give them the nod to win the Stanley Cup. Sure, the Mighty Ducks run has been impressive, say the critics, but Anaheim has not faced a team like the Devils in these playoffs. True enough, but then again, the Devils haven't faced a team like the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in these playoffs.
The Devils made short work of their first-and-second round opponents, who simply lacked the depth and quality goaltending to beat them. However, against the Ottawa Senators, they nearly blew it. When the Senators finally began to work harder and employ their speed advantage, they wiped out a 3-1 series deficit and threatened to eliminate the Devils in Game Seven. The Mighty Ducks, meanwhile, upset two of the very best teams in the league in the first two rounds, then beat the superbly-coached, promising Wild at their own defensive game. While the Wild aren't to be mistaken for this year's Devils, the fact the Ducks eliminated a team that plays a similar style - who were coached by the same man who taught the Devils that team defence game - is something that cannot be dismissed.
The Ducks aren't the 1996 Florida Panthers, 1998 Washington Capitals, 1999 Buffalo Sabres or 2002 Carolina Hurricanes, who defeated teams that had significant weaknesses only to crash in the Finals against teams that were better balanced overall. Two of the three clubs the Ducks defeated were better balanced and lacked significant weaknesses. It wasn't a fluke, it wasn't luck, it wasn't because the other team's goaltending wasn't that good. It was because the Ducks goaltending was better, they believed in themselves and their coach, and they out-worked their opponents.
The Mighty Ducks have beaten the odds to get to this point, and in doing so, are a much better team. On paper, the Devils appear to have the edge, but one cannot dismiss what the Ducks have accomplished. The Mighty Ducks have proven the critics wrong and upset two of the league's best in this year's playoffs. There's no reason to believe they can't do it one more time. The only thing that can derail them is if they take their press clippings too seriously, took it too easy during their 10-game layoff and fail to respect the Devils. Given what Mike Babcock has done to get his team this far, however, that seems unlikely.
PREDICTION: THE ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS WIN THE STANLEY CUP IN SIX GAMES.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS - MINNESOTA WILD.
Coaching: More so than their counterparts in the Eastern Conference Finals, the respective coaches for the Wild (Jacques Lemaire) and Mighty Ducks (Mike Babcock) have done an outstanding job in getting their underdog squads to this point. Babcock coached his Ducks to upset victories of the top two Conference seeds, including the defending Stanley Cup champions. But those teams were coached by rookies themselves, and Babcock has yet to match lines with a cagey coaching veteran like Lemaire. The Wild bench boss has his charges not only believing in themselves like Babcock's Ducks, but they buy into Lemaire's system completely. EDGE: WILD.
Goaltending: One of the reasons for the Wild's success thus far is their goaltending, in that they've used both Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez in key games without missing a beat. The Mighty Ducks have a strong tandem themselves, but they've relied solely on JS Giguere, who's been perhaps the best goaltender in this year's post-season. The Ducks can go to backup Martin Gerber if they need to, but the way "Jiggy's" been playing, that's not likely. The Wild faced an aging Patrick Roy and an inconsistent Dan Cloutier in their previous rounds, so facing a young netminder on top of his game is a first for them in these playoffs. EDGE: MIGHTY DUCKS.
Defence: Led by Keith Carney and a vastly improved Sandis Ozolinsh, the Mighty Ducks blueline corps has steadily progressed as the post-season continued and were one of the main factors for the defeat of the top-seeded Dallas Stars. It's almost funny that in this series of underdogs, it's the Ducks who have the "name" players on their blueline. But the Wild deserve full marks themselves for their strong defensive play, led by the gritty Willie Mitchell, smooth-skating Filip Kuba and promising young Nick Schultz. Shutting down two of the best offences in Colorado and Vancouver is no easy task, but the Wild blueline was up to the task. EDGE: NONE.
Offence: At first glance, the Mighty Ducks appear to have the edge in this department, possessing recognizable scoring talent like Paul Kariya, Adam Oates, Petr Sykora and a rejuvenated Steve Thomas. Factor in contributions from Steve Rucchin, Mike Leclerc and Stanislav Chistov, and the Ducks seem to have the edge. However, led by rising young superstar Marian Gaborik and abetted by Andrew Brunette, Wes Walz, Pascal Dupuis and a rejuvenated Cliff Ronning, the Wild's offensive game has improved as the playoffs progress. Indeed, it was Minnesota's offensive prowess that buried the Vancouver Canucks. EDGE: NONE.
Analysis: Of all the playoffs series I've analyzed this spring, this series is the toughest to predict. It's the Giant-Killers of Anaheim versus the Comeback Kids of Minnesota. Both are loveable, evenly-matched underdogs, but only one will advance to the Cup finals. I expect this series to go the distance, but in the end, I think the coaching of Lemaire and the Wild's team defence and patience may win out against the plucky Ducks. I'm sure I'll hear it from Ducks fans on this one, and if the Canucks had beaten the Wild, I would've picked the Mighty Ducks to win this series, based on their knocking off the top two seeds and the Canucks shaky goaltending. But the Ducks have never faced rebounding from a 3-1 series deficit, something the Wild did twice already, which is unprecedented in a playoff season. Indeed, Minnesota appears to be at their most dangerous when they're playing catch-up. It's that trait that, in my opinion, gives them the edge in this series. PREDICTION: WILD IN SEVEN.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
OTTAWA SENATORS - NEW JERSEY DEVILS.
Coaching: New Jersey's Pat Burns and Ottawa's Jacques Martin have done an outstanding job in getting their respective clubs to this point. Burns does have the experience advantage over Martin, this being his fourth trip to the Conference Finals. However, Martin out-coached Ken Hitchcock in the last round, and he has something Burns has yet to get: a Stanley Cup ring. EDGE: NONE.
Goaltending: The Senators Patrick Lalime may not be known for an eye-catching style, but he's very strong positionally and in his technique. This, however, is his first trip to the rarified air of the Conference Finals. His opponent, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, is a seasoned veteran of the playoff wars. This is his fifth appearance in the Conference Finals, and most importantly, Brodeur may be playing the best hockey of his career right now. EDGE: DEVILS.
Defence: With notables such as Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski, Oleg Tverdovsky, and Ken Daneyko, the Devils defence corps is well-known and well-respected, perhaps the best in the NHL. Up to now, however, they haven't faced a team with as much depth in this year's playoffs as the Senators. They had trouble containing the speedy Sens in the regular season. Ottawa's blueliners are no slouches either, as Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, Zdeno Chara, Anton Volchenkov and Karel Rachunek match up well against the Devils. With New Jersey's forwards struggling to score, they could find scoring chances against the Senators tougher to come by than in the first two rounds. EDGE: NONE.
Offence: If the Devils have an achilles heel, it's on the forward lines. While they play a very strong defensive system, the Devils forwards - most notably Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez - have struggled to find the back of the net. The same cannot be said for the Sens, whose best forwards (Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and Radek Bonk) have all stepped up this spring and shed their collective image as post-season chokes. New Jersey's d-men and goaltender Brodeur will have their hands full with this bunch. EDGE: SENATORS.
Analysis: Ultimately, this series will come down to the goaltending of Martin Brodeur versus the offence of the Ottawa Senators. The Devils anemic offence carried over into the post-season, and could come back to haunt them against the much deeper Senators. More ominous is the aforementioned troubles the Devils blueline had with containing Ottawa's offensive game during the regular season. If that trend continues in this series, the Devils will be in big trouble. They'll need Brodeur to play the series of his career if they hope to defeat the Sens. If Devils fans are expecting the Senators to choke in their first-ever Conference Finals, they'll be bitterly disappointed. Ottawa is a team finally coming of age, and if their top forwards carry over their strong play into this round, even Brodeur may not be able to save them. PREDICTION: SENATORS IN SIX.
DALLAS STARS-ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS:
Coaching: Stars head coach Dave Tippett and Ducks bench boss Mike Babcock remain post-season rookies, but now they've got a taste of playoff success. Both coaches have demonstrated they're up to the challenge of playoff competition and have been able to get the most out of their respective rosters. Tippett has more roster depth than Babcock, but the latter is coming off leading his players to one of the biggest playoff upsets of all time. EDGE: NONE.
Goaltending: Dallas's Marty Turco overcome a couple of shaky early performances against the Oilers to backstop his Stars to a first round triumph over Edmonton. Now that he's found his post-season groove, expect more quality goaltending from Turco. Anaheim's JS Giguere, however, just finished introducing himself to the rest of the hockey world with his sensational performance against Detroit, which was the main reason the Mighty Ducks upset the defending champs. It would be a mistake for the Stars and their followers to write off Giguere as a "flash-in-the-pan", as he's quietly become one of the league's top netminders over the last two seasons. EDGE: NONE.
Defence: The Ducks mostly no-name blueline corps (Sandis Ozolinsh and Fredrik Olausson - the latter a healthy scratch in the first round - are the only "name" defencemen on the Ducks) were overwhelmed by the Red Wings in the first two games of their opening round tilt, but grew stronger and more confident as the series progressed, thanks to Giguere's heroics. They'll have their hands full again with the Stars forwards, who are younger and grittier than Detroit's. Anaheim's forwards will find it hard slogging against the Stars defencemen, who like their forwards are younger, tougher and grittier than Detroit's blueline corps. Led by Derian Hatcher, the Dallas d-men will make scoring chances for the Ducks forwards hard to come by. EDGE: STARS.
Offence: Anaheim's forwards are a plucky bunch, and their best ones - Paul Kariya, Adam Oates, Steve Rucchin and Petr Sykora - all stepped up against Detroit. One should expect no less from them against the Stars. Still, the Stars hold an obvious advantage in depth over the Mighty Ducks. As if having to face Mike Modano, Brenden Morrow, Jason Arnott, Jere Lehtinen, Scott Young and Stu Barnes weren't bad enough, it now appears that Bill Guerin and Pierre Turgeon, who've been sidelined for weeks with injuries, may be back for this series.That may be too much firepower for even the game Giguere to withstand. EDGE: STARS.
Analysis: As with the first round match-up between the Red Wings and Mighty Ducks, this series on paper looks to be a mismatch in Dallas's favour. However, this Anaheim club is coming off upsetting the defending champs and shouldn't be taken lightly. Don't expect the Stars to make the same mistake as the Red Wings in this series. While the Stars have the obvious advantage in roster depth, look for the Ducks to counter with hard work and sticking to their game plan. Ultimately, the course of this series will turn on the goaltending. Don't expect Turco to allow many soft goals. If he's on top of his game, and his defencemen do their usual strong work, the Ducks could be in trouble. Anaheim's hopes will once again rest with the man they call "Jiggy". If Giguere can play the same way as he did against Detroit, the Ducks have a chance. I love to cheer for underdogs, but I think midnight is about to toll for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. PREDICTION: STARS IN FIVE.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS-MINNESOTA WILD.
Coaching: Both Vancouver's Marc Crawford and Minnesota's Jacques Lemaire have had their share of post-season success as head coaches, and both come with a championship on their records. However, what gives the advantage to Lemaire is how well his players have bought into his hard-working defensive system. Crawford has the "name" players, but Lemaire has done incredible things with a largely no-name roster. EDGE: WILD.
Goaltending: The Canucks Dan Cloutier answered his critics in shutting down the St. Louis Blues in his club's final three games of their opening round tilt. However, there are concerns about his sore knee and the quality of his backups. The Wild, meanwhile, used both Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez enroute to upsetting the Colorado Avalanche in Round One, and easily shuttle between the two. "Cloots" may not be facing as much high-powered offence as he did in Round One, which could balance this out. Still, the depth obviously goes in Minnesota's favour. EDGE: WILD.
Defence: The Canucks blueline, led by Ed Jovanovski, is made up of big, fast, hard-hitting defencemen who love to join the rush, thus adding another dimension to the Canucks offensive attack. However, they showed a tendency toward inconsistency against the Blues. The Wild's blueline corps is not as well-known as Vancouver's but they play a no-nonsense, hardworking defensive style that frustrates their opponents. They may not join the rush, but they do a good job in limiting opposition scoring chances. Still, given how well Vancouver's defencemen can use their size and skill, they should be able to neutralize Minnesota's anemic offence. EDGE: CANUCKS.
Offence: Most of their forwards are unknowns and cast-offs, but they play a tight-checking team game and make the most of their opportunities. Their best forwards, Marian Gaborik and Andrew Brunette, stepped up when required against the Avs. Still, the Canucks have the obvious advantage in firepower, led by their high-scoring line of Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison, and the rejuvenated Trevor Linden. EDGE: CANUCKS.
Analysis: This is another series that, on paper, looks to be in favour of the team with the "name" players, but looks can be deceiving. The Wild battled the Canucks to a draw in their season series (3-3-1), and their defensive style drove the Canucks to distraction. Expect the Wild to try to neutralize the Naslund-Bertuzzi line, for as that line goes, so go the Canucks. Vancouver answered their critics by rallying from a two-game deficit against the Blues, but the Wild did the same thing against a heavily-favoured Avalanche club. I'd expect this series to go to the limit, but I also have a feeling the Canucks will play a much smarter, better disciplined game against the Wild this time around. As long as Cloutier stays healthy and focussed, and the Canucks use their size and skill to their advantage, they should be able to beat the Wild. They cannot, however, take the Wild for granted, for this Minnesota club relishes the underdog role and believes in itself, and could make Vancouver pay. PREDICTION: CANUCKS IN SEVEN.
OTTAWA SENATORS-PHILADELPHIA FLYERS.
Coaching: The Flyers Ken Hitchcock and the Senators Jacques Martin both have their teams playing a defensively-sound system that demands teamwork and discipline which produces good results. Both have plenty of post-season experience, but the advantage swings to Hitchcock, who has two Finals appearances and a Stanley Cup on his resume. EDGE: FLYERS.
Goaltending: Neither Philadelphia's Roman Cechmanek nor Ottawa's Patrick Lalime has backstopped their respective clubs past the second round, so one of them will be ending their jinx this year. Cechmanek has posted up good stats in the post-season and perennially ranks among the top ten in regular season action. However, his unorthodox style leads to occasional misadventures, which against a club like Ottawa could be lethal. Lalime has better stats in this year's playoffs than his Philly rival and plays a more disciplined style, rarely giving up big rebounds. That could mean the difference in this series. EDGE: SENATORS.
Defence: The blueline corps of both clubs are deep, talented and evenly-matched. The Senators have the edge in terms of youth, but the Flyers have plenty of experience on their backline. The one factor that could tilt this in favour of Ottawa is the broken foot of Flyers workhorse Eric Desjardins. The longer he's out of the lineup, the more costly it could be for the Flyers, unless one of the Senators better blueliners, like Zdeno Chara or Wade Redden, suffers an injury. SLIGHT EDGE: SENATORS.
Offence: Another area where both clubs match up well. It's tough to determine which club has the advantage here. The Flyers have a good mix of youth (Gagne, Williams) and experience (Roenick, LeClair, Recchi, Primeau), while the Senators counter with plenty of youth and speed in Hossa, Alfredsson, Bonk, Havlat, Smolinski and White. Ottawa was the NHL's best regular season, and it's no good making the argument the Senators disappear in the playoffs, as they put that jinx to rest last year defeating the Flyers a year ago. But Hitchcock wasn't coaching Philly back then, and it would be foolhardy for Senators supporters to expect the Flyers to roll over again. EDGE: NONE.
Anaylsis: Flyers fans will want to trot out the old song-and-dance about the Senators being a soft playoff team, but you can bet their club won't be listening to it. Ottawa is a grittier team than they were in the past, so expect them to hold their own in that department. This series is almost too close to call, but ultimately, the several days the Senators have had off between series gave them time to rest and work on their special teams, particularly the powerplay, could be a key factor in determining the outcome. The Flyers are coming off a hard-fought seven game war with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Throw in the lingering uncertainty regarding Cechmanek's goaltending, and the absence of Desjardins, and it tilts the series in the Senators favour. Regardless, it will be another entertaining, long series. PREDICTION: SENATORS IN SEVEN.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS-TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING:
Coaching: New Jersey's Pat Burns and Tampa Bay's John Tortorella are both no-nonsense disciplinarian coaches who demand their players stick to their systems or risk losing playing time. Both have had success with their respective clubs this season, but Burns has the advantage over Tortorella in terms of playoff experience. EDGE: DEVILS.
Goaltending: After looking ordinary in his first three games against Washington in Round One, Lightning netminder Nikolai Khabibulin settled down and was spectacular in helping his club defeat the Capitals. In doing so, "the 'Bulin Wall" answered those who claimed he couldn't win a playoff series. For the Bolts to have a realistic shot at beating the Devils, he'll have to remain sharp throughout this series. The Devils, meanwhile, have no concerns over the consistency of their long-time goalie Martin Brodeur. Except for one bad game against the Bruins, Brodeur was superb in the Devils five-game victory over Boston. While not taking anything away from Khabibulin, Brodeur's years of experience and success in the post-season must be taken into consideration. EDGE: DEVILS.
Defence: If there is a distinct difference between these two clubs, it's on the blueline. The Bolts weakness in this department was very apparent against the Capitals, and were it not for Khabibulin, the outcome of that series may have been different. The Devils defence corps, on the other hand, is one of the best in the league. The Bolts forward lines are going to find it difficult to generate quality scoring chances against the deep New Jersey blueline. EDGE: DEVILS.
Offence: The Devils got quality offence from Joe Nieuwendyk, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jeff Friesen and John Madden, but their top forwards, Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez, have been non-factors thus far in this year's playoffs. The low-scoring Devils need these two to improve. The imminent return of Sergei Brylin could also help. If the Lightning are to upset the Devils, they'll not only need Khabibulin to come up big, but they'll need their top forwards to cash in. This is the sole area where the Bolts have the edge over the Devils. Their best forwards - Lecavalier, St. Louis, Prospal and Richards - were the deciding factor against the Caps, while lesser lights such as Dave Andreychuk, Fredrik Modin and Ruslan Fedotenko can also chip in with timely offence. EDGE: LIGHTNING.
Analysis: Expect the goaltending at both ends to be of high quality in this series. The determining factor in this matchup will be which club's strength - the Lightning's lightning-fast offence, the Devils suffocating defense - emerges as the dominant one. For that matter, it'll be interesting to see how each team's weaknesses - the Bolts shaky defensive game, the Devils anemic offence - factors into the mix. The Lightning are a young, promising, fast team that is fun to watch and could be an emerging force in the East. However, they're going up against an experienced Devils club whose tight-checking system is perfect for playoff conditions. The Lightning have served notice they're a club on the rise, but their time has not come yet. PREDICTION: DEVILS IN SIX.
DALLAS STARS-EDMONTON OILERS.
Coaching: This will be Edmonton's Craig MacTavish's second trip to the post-season as the Oilers head coach, and Dallas's Dave Tippett's first as the Stars bench boss. Tippett has done a splendid job in guiding the Stars back amongst the cream of the West and has plenty of depth to work with. MacTavish's Oilers, while possessing lots of talented youth, tend to be inconsistent, due in part to the inexperience of some on their roster. EDGE: STARS.
Goaltending: Edmonton's Tommy Salo is no stranger to first-round playoff action, however, he has yet to backstop the Oilers into the second round. He's also been plagued by inconsistency this season. Dallas's Marty Turco is coming off an injury and is a rookie to playoff action, however, he goes into this matchup as one of the best goalies in the league. EDGE: STARS.
Defence: The Oilers possess a good young blueline, anchored by team captain Jason Smith and the ever-improving Eric Brewer. However, the Stars have one of the deepest defence corps in the game, many of whom - like Derian Hatcher, Sergei Zubov and Richard Matvichuk - helped bring the Stanley Cup to Dallas in 1999. EDGE: STARS.
Offence: Again, talented youth is well served in Edmonton, with an offensive attack led by Mike Comrie and Ryan Smyth, along with late-season additions Radek Dvorak and Brad Isbister, and promising rookie Ales Hemsky. The Stars possess plenty of veteran talent on their forwards lines, which usually would have the Oilers out-matched, however, injuries to Bill Guerin and Pierre Turgeon has hurt them, and there's concern over the seriousness of a late-season leg injury sustained by Mike Modano. EDGE: NONE.
Intangibles: The Stars were 5th in powerplay (PP) scoring and in penalty killing (PK). They were also 9th in shorthanded goals (SH) and gave up the 10th least. The Oilers were 19th on the PP and 20th on the PK. They were 17th in SH goals against, but led the league with SH tallies. For the Oilers to win, they'll need Salo to return to the form of playoffs past, and must use their speed to their advantage. They must also play a disciplined game against the Stars, or it'll cost them. The Oilers will play with a lot of heart and determination and will take it to the Stars physically, however, they're simply lacking in quality depth to pull off the upset. Even with their injuries, the Stars are too strong at all positions and play a very disciplined game. With Turco hot and Salo not, this series may not last very long. PREDICTION: STARS IN FIVE.
DETROIT RED WINGS-ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS.
Coaching: Both clubs go into the post-season with rookie head coaches, but there is a significant difference. While Anaheim's Mike Babcock has not coached during the playoffs, Detroit's Dave Lewis is a veteran of the post-season wars due to his years as Scotty Bowman's assistant prior to taking over the head coaching reins this season. Babcock has done a great job in bringing the Mighty Ducks back into the post-season after a three-year absence, but Lewis gets the nod in this category. EDGE: RED WINGS.
Goaltending: The Red Wings have the experience in Curtis Joseph and Manny Legace, but one shouldn't dismiss the abilities of young JS Giguere and his backup Martin Gerber, who were among the better tandems in the league this season. Still, these youngsters will be facing a lot more offensive firepower than their rivals at the other end, and that could be too much to handle. EDGE: RED WINGS.
Defence: The Ducks possess an experienced blueline corps in Fredrik Olausson, Sandis Ozolinsh, Keith Carney and promising young Vitaly Vishnevsky, who were key reasons for Anaheim's turnaround this season. However, the Red Wings defence is far deeper in experienced talent, most notably former Norris winners Niklas Listrom and Chris Chelios, as well as Jason Woolley and late-season pickup Mathieu Schneider, both of whom have plenty of post-season experience. EDGE: RED WINGS.
Offence: The main reason for the Ducks improvement this season was on the forward lines, thanks to off-season acquisitions Adam Oates and Petr Sykora, who perfectly complimented captain Paul Kariya. Late-season pick-ups Steve Thomas and Rob Niedermayer brought much-needed depth to their lineup. Unfortunately, it's probably not going to be enough to counter the awesome depth of the defending champs. Facing a good mix of veterans like Yzerman, Fedorov, Shanahan, Hull and Larionov mixing with rising young talent like Zetterberg and Datsyuk, the Ducks appear outnumbered and out-gunned. EDGE: RED WINGS.
Intangibles: The Red Wings led the league in PP scoring, were 7th on the PK and in SH goals and gave up the third-least shorthanded goals. The Mighty Ducks were 16th on the PP but second overall on the penalty kill. They were 15th in SH scoring but gave up the 7th least. The deck appears stacked against the Mighty Ducks, who also lost the season series to the Wings. While they won't go down quietly, and may steal a game, the Wings are simply too dominant at all positions. Unless the Wings make the mistake of taking the Ducks too lightly, this series could be over quickly. PREDICTION: WINGS IN FOUR.
COLORADO AVALANCHE-MINNESOTA WILD.
Coaching: Colorado's going into playoff battle this year with a rookie, former player Tony Granato, who's done a fine job of reversing the Avs early season slide to win them their record 9th divisional crown. However, he's never coached in the playoffs, and is going up against a veteran master in Jacques Lemaire. The Wild have completely bought into Lemaire's defensive system, so much so it's almost cult-like. EDGE: WILD.
Goaltending: The Wild have been well-served this season by Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson, who were among the top netminding tandems in the league. However, none of them have the post-season experience and success of Colorado's Patrick Roy, who rebounded from a first-half slump to post yet another 30+ win season. With Roy back on top of his game, the Wild will find goals tough to come by. EDGE: AVALANCHE.
Defence: Sure, the Wild's defence corps on paper looks ordinary, but they play an extraordinary defensive system, which is the prime reason this team is in the playoffs in the first place. They're a hard-working group who play superbly in their own zone, and as the Avs have already found out this season, the Wild aren't intimidated by Colorado's offence. The Avalanche possess name blueliners such as Rob Blake, Adam Foote and Derek Morris, who were the prime reasons Colorado's defence corps led all others in scoring this season. They also play very well within their own zone, which will make it tough for the Wild to get quality scoring chances. EDGE: NONE.
Offence: The Wild aren't among the top-scoring clubs in the league, but they do possess quality scoring depth in Cliff Ronning, Andrew Brunette and rising young star Marian Gaborik. Unfortunately, Gaborik's offense has grown cold over the last couple of months, which could prove costly to the Wild if it carries over into this series. As for Colorado, there is concern over the offensive production of Joe Sakic's line, but that's balanced out by the high-scoring combination of Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay. Sakic has struggled with injury, but he's always a threat in the post-season. EDGE: AVALANCHE.
Intangibles: The Avalanche were 6th in PP scoring, but 21st on the PK. They were 23rd in SH goals, but 9th in SH goals against. The Wild were 23rd on the PP, but a stingy 4th on the PK. They were 10th in SH markers, and 8th in SH goals against. Given the type of game the Wild play, the Avs are going to have to work hard to win this one. There may not be a lot of goal-scoring in this series. Still, with their offensive depth and their own ability to match grinding teams, the Avalanche should come out on top of this one. PREDICTION: AVALANCHE IN SIX.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS-ST. LOUIS BLUES.
Coaching: Although their post-season records in recent years hasn't been that good, the Canucks Marc Crawford and the Blues Joel Quenneville have plenty of experience between them. One would be tempted to give Crawford the edge, given how much his team improved this season, but a rash of serious injuries are the reason the Blues fell to fifth overall this season. EDGE: NONE.
Goaltending: This is the area where the series will hinge. The Blues have struggled between the pipes all season, something not even trade deadline pick-up Chris Osgood was able to reverse. Vancouver's Dan Cloutier has had another good regular season and appears to have recovered from a late-season knee injury, but doubts remain about his ability to play in the post-season. If Osgood regains his form and Cloutier struggles, the series could tip in the Blues favour, but if Ozzy struggles and Cloutier stays strong, the Canucks could come out on top. This goalie match-up will be interesting. EDGE: NONE.
Defence: The bluelines of both clubs appear almost even. Both possess "name" defencemen who play both ends of the ice well, the Canucks with Ed Jovanovski and Matthias Ohlund, the Blues with Al MacInnis and the recently returned Chris Pronger. It'll be the performance of the "lesser lights" of both defence corps that could play a factor in the outcome of this series. One who could tilt this in the Blues favour is Calder candidate Barrett Jackman. EDGE: NONE.
Offence: The Canucks possess one of the highest scoring lines in the league in Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison. There's been a knock on the production of their second line, although the Sedin twins have meshed well of late with veteran centre Trevor Linden. They'll have to be on their game if the top line gets shut down. The Blues, meanwhile, have plenty of experienced offensive depth in Doug Weight, Pavol Demitra and Keith Tkachuk. Still, injuries have plagued the forward lines of the Blues this season, and it's health going into this series could also be a determining factor in it's outcome. EDGE: NONE.
Intangibles: Both clubs are evenly matched on the PP, the Canucks with the third best, the Blues with the fourth. However, the Canucks fare better on the PK, finishing 12th to the Blues 23rd. Both clubs are evenly matched in SH scoring, the Canucks posting the 4th most, the Blues the sixth most. Vancouver does tend to give up more short-handed goals (25th) than the Blues (13th). Given how evenly matched both clubs appear to be, the outcome of this series will depend on the grinders of both teams, and most importantly, the goaltending. With Osgood struggling going into this series, and Cloutier appearing to regain his form, the edge swings in favour of Vancouver. PREDICTION: CANUCKS IN SIX.
OTTAWA SENATORS-NY ISLANDERS.
Coaching: the Isles Peter Laviolette deserves credit for reversing his club's awful first-half to get them into the playoffs, however, his team is entering this series in the midst of a horrible late-season slump. Meanwhile, Ottawa's Jacques Martin has guided his club to it's first-ever President's Trophy and they're entering the playoffs as dominant as they've been since November. EDGE: SENATORS.
Goaltending: In Patrick Lalime and rookie Martin Prusek, the Sens possess a quality netminding tandem. In Garth Snow and Rick DiPietro, the Isles tandem is questionable. Either Snow or DiPietro stand on their heads, or this series is over quickly. EDGE: SENATORS.
Defence: The one area where both teams match up well. The high-flying Senators blueline is one of the best in the league, the main components being Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, Chris Phillips and Karel Rachunek. However, the Isles counter with Kenny Jonsson, Roman Hamrlik, Janne Niinimaa and Adrian Aucoin. EDGE: NONE.
Offence: Top Islanders forward Alexei Yashin has had an up-and-down season, but has been hot of late. However, he has a bad habit of disappearing in the post-season. Thus, Jason Blake, Mark Parrish and team captain Michael Peca to step it up. They'll have their hands full against a dominant Senators offence, led by Marian Hossa, Daniel Alfredsson and Martin Havlat, as well as the rest of the very deep Ottawa forward lines. EDGE: SENATORS.
Intangibles: The Senators had the second-best powerplay (PP) and ranked 11th on the penalty kill (PK), while the Islanders were 17th overall in both categories. The Isles were second-overall in short-handed goals, while the Sens were 27th, but the Islanders were 7th in short-handed goals against, while Ottawa was 15th. Once considered playoff "softies", the Sens play a more physical game now, bolstered in part by late-season acquisitions Vaclav Varada and Rob Ray. The Isles must play a strong physical and defensive game and need one of their goalies to be outstanding if they're to have a chance against the superior Senators. Given how they've "backed into the playoffs", I don't like the Isles chances. PREDICTION: SENATORS IN FOUR.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS-BOSTON BRUINS.
Coaching: The Devils Pat Burns is a long-time veteran of the post-season wars and has his club playing the tight defensive game that has been successful for them in the past. Bruins GM Mike O'Connell fired Robbie Ftorek as head coach late in the season and stepped behind the bench himself, but he's done little to make the Bruins a better club and has no post-season coaching experience. EDGE: DEVILS.
Goaltending: New Jersey's Martin Brodeur is no stranger to playoff battle, backstopping the Devils to two Stanley Cups in 1995 and 2000. He's also coming off his record-setting 4th career 40-win season. The Bruins goaltending, meanwhile, is in disarray. Steve Shields has been inconsistent, while the presently-injured Jeff Hackett has fared little better since coming over from Montreal in a mid-season trade. Goaltending was the Bruins achilles heel in last year's playoffs and could be their undoing again. EDGE: DEVILS.
Defence: Put simply, the Devils blueline corps is one of the best in the league, anchored by team captain Scott Stevens. They'll make it tough for Boston's forwards to get quality scoring chances. The Bruins have been missing a capable puck-carrying blueliner since Ray Bourque left town, and are devoid of any notable "name" defencemen. If they carry over their regular-season inconsistency into this match-up with the Devils, it could be a short series. EDGE: DEVILS.
Offence: For all their defensive strength, the Devils are a low-scoring bunch, and lack significant depth at centre, putting their faith in an aging Joe Nieuwendyk and an inconsistent Scott Gomez. The Bruins counter with one of the best offensive "one-two" punches in the game in Joe Thornton and Glen Murray. Former Devil Brian Rolston is always a threat to score short-handed. They'll also receive a boost in the return from a nearly season-long injury of puckhandling wizard Sergei Samsonov. EDGE: BRUINS.
Intangibles: The Bruins ranked 10th on the PP and 20th on the PK, while the Devils interestingly were 29th and 1st in those respective categories. The Bruins were 8th overall in SH goals, the Devils 19th, but New Jersey gave up the third-least short handed goals, the Bruins the fourth-least. If the Bruins struggle to get through the Devils smothering defence and Brodeur's stellar goaltending, this will be another series that could end quickly. Boston must press the Devils offensively, match them defensively and will need either Shields or Hackett to turn in the performance of their careers. They may be able to carry off the first, will struggle in the second, and could sadly come up short in the last requirement, the most important. PREDICTION: DEVILS IN FIVE.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING-WASHINGTON CAPITALS.
Coaching: The Lightning's John Tortorella is in his third season as their head coach, but like his club, this is his first trip to the post-season. Ditto for the Caps rookie bench-boss Bruce Cassidy. It'll be interesting to see how this coaching duel unfolds. EDGE: NONE.
Goaltending: Both the Lightning's Nikolai Khabibulin and the Capitals Olaf Kolzig have plenty of post-season experience with modest success, although the latter did backstop the Caps to the Finals in 1998. If there is a slight edge between the two, it's that Khabibulin has been red-hot since the All-Star break, which could be a factor going into this series. SLIGHT EDGE: LIGHTNING.
Defence: Both teams lack quality depth on the blueline, and both possess a high-scoring blueliner, the Caps with Sergei Gonchar, the Bolts with Dan Boyle. Essentially, both clubs' defence corps are strikingly similar, which means they'll both have fits trying to contain each other's lethal offensive firepower. EDGE: NONE.
Offence: Another area where these two clubs are very similar. The Capitals trot out notable scoring talent like Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Robert Lang and Michael Nylander, while the Lightning counter with Vincent Lecavalier, Vaclav Prospal, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards. The latter four made the Bolts the only NHL team with four 70+point men, but the Capitals primary four are well-experienced and not to be taken lightly. It will be an intriguing battle between youth and experience. EDGE: NONE.
Intangibles: The Lightning were 8th in PP goals and 14th on the PK. The Capitals were 13th on the PP, but had the worst PK in the league. Washington was 17th in short-handed scoring to Tampa Bay's 22nd placing. They also gave up the fourth least short-handed goals, but the Lightning were the 6th best in that category. The Lightning's youth could be a significant factor here either way, as could the Caps veteran factor cut both ways. If Jagr and Bondra can shrug off their otherwise forgettable recent post-season performances, they could give the Bolts a lot of trouble. However, if they struggle against heavy checking, the Lightning's speed could exploit the weaknesses in the Caps blueline. This series will ultimately come down to goaltending, and if Khabibulin remains hot, should tilt this series in the Lightning's favour: PREDICTION: LIGHTNING IN SIX.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS-TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS.
Coaching: Plenty of experience in both camps, as the Leafs Pat Quinn and the Flyers Ken Hitchcock have done this dance many times before. If there is one significant edge, it's the Flyers ability to play a disciplined game for Hitchcock, something the Leafs struggle at times to do for Quinn. That could be one of the important keys to this series. EDGE: FLYERS.
Goaltending: Toronto's Ed Belfour has garnered a reputation in recent years as one of the best in post-season competition. He can lose his composure if opponents are allowed to crowd or crash his crease, but overall "the Eagle" stays focussed. Many commentators doubt the Flyers can go far with Roman Cechmanek between the pipes, an assessment that is rather unfair when one considers Cechmanek was the only Flyer to play with any passion in last spring's playoff collapse. Still, the pressure will be on Cechmanek to come through, which is more than what Belfour will have to face. EDGE: MAPLE LEAFS.
Defence: The blueline corps of both clubs contain no notable big names, but there is a significant difference between the two. While the Leafs struggle if pressured within their own zone, the Flyers play Hitchcock's tight-checking defensive system very well. That could be another key factor in determining the winner of this series. EDGE: FLYERS.
Offence: On paper, both team's appear to match up well. The Leafs with Mats Sundin, Alexander Mogilny, Owen Nolan, and Gary Roberts; the Flyers with Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte, Simon Gagne and Mark Recchi. However, injuries have ravaged the forward lines at various times during the season. The Flyers appeared to get a boost from the return of Gagne, while the Leafs will be hoping Roberts is back in form for the Leafs during this series. It may well come down to which team is the healthiest. EDGE: NONE.
Intangibles: The Maple Leafs ranked 11th on the PP, but were 3rd on the PK. The Flyers, on the other hand, were a dismal 26th on the PP, but were 9th overall on the PK. The Leafs ranked 6th in short-handed goals to the Flyer 14th, while little separated them in short-handed goals against (12th for the Leafs compared to 17th for the Flyers). For the Leafs to defeat the Flyers, they'll need Belfour to continue his strong post-season ways, as well as their walking wounded to get back into action. Most importantly, they'll need to play a disciplined game against the Flyers. Granted, Philly's woeful powerplay could have the Leafs dodging a bullet in that category, but it's disciplined teams who tend to go far in the post-season. As for the Flyers, who are seemingly getting healthier and playing a far more disciplined game, it could all come down to Cechmanek. PREDICTION: FLYERS IN SEVEN.
OTTAWA SENATORS: Strengths: A strong team game, most notably the defensive aspect. Depth throughout the roster. Improved physical presence due to late-season trades. Quality goaltending.
Weaknesses: reputation for being playoff "choke" artists. Questions as to whether or not head coach Jacques Martin can finally get this team over the hump.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: Strengths: Superb goaltending from Martin Brodeur; the best defensive team in the league; plays very well with a lead. Plenty of post-season experience, as many on the roster won Cups either with the Devils or with other clubs.
Weaknesses: Lack of depth at centre and in offensive firepower, which could be costly if an opponent takes a lead and matches their checking tactics.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Strengths: Young, fast, and exciting to watch. Starting goalie Nikolai Khabibulin peaking at the right time. At their most dangerous when trailing in the third period. The dark horse in the Eastern Conference.
Weaknesses: they lack quality blueline depth. Most on the roster lack post-season experience, which could lead to costly mistakes. Post-season inexperience of head coach John Tortorella.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: Strengths: Plenty of depth at all positions. Head coach Ken Hitchcock a proven winner in post-season competition. Added offensive boost provided by late-season acquisition of Tony Amonte.
Weaknesses: Starting goalie Roman Cechmanek's ability to carry the Flyers through the playoffs is again in question. Injuries to key players and slumping offensive production from veterans such as Mark Recchi and Keith Primeau.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: Strengths: starting goalie Ed Belfour one of the top playoff goalies in the league. Improved depth of experienced NHL-calibre talent in late-season trades. Plenty of playoff experience.
Weaknesses: undisciplined play leading to costly penalties, rash of injuries to key veterans heading into the playoffs. Lingering doubts regarding blueline depth.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Strengths: Experienced goaltending from Olaf Kolzig. A potentially explosive offensive attack, led by notable forwards like Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra.
Weaknesses: lack of quality blueline depth. Jagr and Bondra have demonstrated in recent years they don't like the heavy going of post-season competition. Inexperience of head coach Bruce Cassidy.
BOSTON BRUINS: Strengths: Lethal offensive one-two punch of forwards Joe Thornton and Glen Murray. Two-way forward Brian Rolston always a threat to score short-handed. Could get an added offensive boost if winger Sergei Samsonov returns from injury
Weaknesses: Big question marks regarding the goaltending and blueline corps. Off-ice turmoil of recent changes in coaching staff. Have been a sub-.500 club since December.
NY ISLANDERS: Strengths: impressive depth on the blueline corps featuring Roman Hamrlik, Kenny Jonsson, Adrian Aucoin and Janne Niinimaa. Top offensive forward Alexei Yashin regaining his scoring touch after mid-season slump.
Weaknesses: Lack a quality starting netminder. Slumping down the stretch. Team captain Mike Peca openly criticizing his club's determination could be indicative of serious problems. Jonsson again plagued by concussion symptoms.
DALLAS STARS: Strengths: Plenty of established veteran talent, many of whom were with the Stars when they won their last championship in 1999. Depth at all areas of the roster, particularly the blueline. Can adapt well to any style of game.
Weaknesses: Starter Marty Turco has never played in the post-season, which might be a factor. Injured forwards Bill Guerin and Pierre Turgeon may not be back for the first round. Inexperience of rookie head coach Dave Tippett in playoff competition.
DETROIT RED WINGS: Strengths: Defending champions, and playing like it of late, peaking at the right time of the season. Team captain Steve Yzerman returns from injury. Loads of experience and depth. Line of Hull-Datsyuk-Zetterberg red hot down the stretch.
Weaknesses: Goalie Curtis Joseph can steal a series, unfortunately it's always a first-round series. His record past the first round is spotty. Health concerns will dog Yzerman and veteran blueliner Chris Chelios. Aging key veterans could be a factor.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Strengths: possess the NHL's highest scoring line in Naslund-Morrison-Bertuzzi. They play a fast-paced game, with defencemen, led by Ed Jovanovski, jumping up to join the rush.
Weaknesses: Average second-line could be a problem if first line shut down. Goaltending of Dan Cloutier in the post-season remains a question mark, as will the status of his sore right knee.
COLORADO AVALANCHE: Strengths: notable improvement in the second half of the season. Appear to be peaking at the right time. Goalie Patrick Roy returned to form. Defence corps highest scoring in the NHL. Forwards Peter Forsberg always performs well in the post-season.
Weaknesses: Joe Sakic line has struggled offensively. The inexperience of rookie coach Tony Granato could be a factor. There are concerns about their physical game.
ST. LOUIS BLUES: Strengths: high-scoring forwards in Pavol Demitra and Keith Tkachuk. Defence corps depth has improved with return to action of Chris Pronger. He'll take some of the load off of veteran linemate Al MacInnis.
Weaknesses: Goaltending of Chris Osgood and Brent Johnson very inconsistent. Concerns over the toughness of the overall roster.
ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS: Strengths: Strong goaltending, particularly from JS Giguere. High-scoring first line of Sykora-Oates-Kariya. Much-needed veteran depth brought in from late-season deals has paid off. Could be the dark horse team in the West.
Weaknesses: Rookie coach in Mike Babcock. Many players lacking post-season experience. There could be concerns over the defensive side of their game.
MINNESOTA WILD: Strengths: Play perhaps the best team system of any NHL club. Well-coached by Jacques Lemaire. Grinding defensive game perfectly suited for playoffs.
Weaknesses: top-scoring forward Marian Gaborik's offense has cooled noticeably in recent weeks. Most players inexperienced in post-season, particularly the goaltending.
EDMONTON OILERS: Strengths: Fast-paced, hard-nosed style, particularly on their home ice. Good mix of veterans in their prime and rising young talent.
Weaknesses: Tommy Salo's goaltending has been inconsistent. Appears to lack the depth to get past a strong first round opponent. Inexperience of some youngsters could be costly.
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