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NHL - 2002 Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview

By Lee Manchur
Tuesday, April 16th, 2002

After the best regular season in recent NHL history not only off the ice with a 29% television viewership increase in the United States alone, but also with the renewal or addition of nine corporate sponsors, it is only fitting that the 2002 version of the annual Stanley Cup playoffs is hyped to be the best in at least five seasons. This has been the most competitive season in a long, long time and the playoffs will be no different.

Each of the 16 qualified teams can stare any of the other 15 teams in the eye and can say, with absolute honesty, "We can beat you." The eighth seed in each conference, Montreal in the East and Vancouver in the West, are riding a hot goaltender, and the 'Nucks are the No. 1 team since Christmas, with just nine losses.

The No. 1 seed in the East, the Boston Bruins, are looking for their first Championship since 1972, and on-ice leader Bill Geurin scored a career-high 41 goals.

The Detroit Red Wings played terrible the past four weeks, but they've been resting their star players as they clinched a playoff spot long ago. The defending Avs couldn't buy a goal at the start of the year, and finished with a franchise-worst in that category, but when you have a three-time playoff MVP in net, you don't need too many goals.

A long story made short is that any team can win this year. Here's a breakdown of the opening round matchups, and how I see things panning out over the course of the next seven and a half weeks.

Western Quarterfinal: (1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (8) Vancouver Canucks

Don't be fooled by what seems like a blow-out by the Wings on paper. While Detroit had the best record before Christmas, the Canucks are the best team in the NHL since December 25. Dan Cloutier is a goalie that can steal games for the Canucks, but hasn't received the deserved attention that guys like Jose Theodore and Dominik Hasek get.

The Canucks faced the Avalanche last year -- the President's Trophy winner -- in the first round of the playoffs, and must do it again this year against Detroit. While Vancouver lost four straight, three of the games were one-goal differences, and with the No. 2 and No. 3 scorers in the NHL in Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi, the Red Wings better be prepared.

Bottom Line: While the Canucks will give the Wings a run for their money, Detroit's depth is no match for any team in the NHL. Red Wings in 5.

Eastern Quarterfinal: (1) Boston Bruins vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens

The Bruins have the edge in this one with two wins and three ties verus Montreal in the regular season. Nevertheless, this will be a great matchup as the Canadiens are on an emotional high with captain Saku Koivu returning recently to the lineup, scoring two assists in his most recent game. Goaltender Jose Theodore is an MVP candidate and is one of the hottest goalies in the second half of the regular season. This should be an exciting matchup.

Bottom Line: Never underestimate franchises like the Yankees in baseball, and the Canadiens in hockey. They'll put up a fight. Bruins in 7.

Western Quarterfinal: (2) Colorado Avalanche vs. (7) Los Angeles Kings

This is a rematch of the surprising Western semifinal last year that occurred because the Kings knocked off the No. 2-seeded Red Wings in the opening round. Don't expect history to repeat itself. With Peter Forsberg coming back possibly midway through the series or else early in the second round, the Avalanche have pulled themselves together after a sloppy fall and early winter.

As always, goaltending will be a major factor. Felix Potvin goes on his regular very hot-and-very cold streaks, while Patrick Roy skipped the Olympics, specifically preparing for another run at the Stanley Cup.

Bottom Line: Besides the Wings, the Avalanche are the deepest team in the tournament, and are no match for the Kings at any position, including goal. Avalanche in 5.

Eastern Quarterfinal: (2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (7) Ottawa Senators

In the final three days of the regular season, the Senators slipped from fifth and a date with the Leafs, to sixth in what would seem like a morning skate with the Hurricanes, to where they finished at seventh, and a daunting task of defeating the Flyers. The Flyers boast, of those with twenty or more games, the No. 4 goalie in the league in GAA with Roman Cechmanek at 2.05.

Meanwhile, the knock against the Senators, still, is size. Despite making minor improvements in that category in the offseason, they are still nowhere where they need to be to contend for the Cup, and the Flyers will be the perfect example to demonstrate that weakness against.

Bottom Line: Flyers will physically and offensively dominate. Patrick Lalime must be very hot to give the Sens a chance. Flyers in 5.

Western Quarter Final: (3) San Jose Sharks vs. (6) Phoenix Coyotes

No one gave the Coyotes a chance at the start of the season, but they didn't live up to those low "expectations." Meanwhile, the Sharks were predicted to finally overtake Dallas as the Pacific Division champs, and they did live up to the hype. This results in what should be an exciting series as the overachieving Desert Dogs take on the Swimming Sharks.

Sean Burke is solely responsible for the Coyotes' high finish. However, the Sharks, after being disappointingly knocked out early last season, are maturer and are ready to take the next step and contend for the Western title. While the Coyotes showed no ill-effects of the losses of Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk, fans will witness why you need those players come playoff time.

Bottom Line: The Sharks, like it or not, are now one of the serious contenders in the West. Sharks in 5.

Eastern Quarter Final: (3) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (7) New Jersey Devils

After a slow start to the season, the Devils fired Larry Robinson and have battled back from ninth spot at the All-Star Break to a respectable finish in seventh, capped off by an 8-2-0-0 record in their final 10 regular season games.

Meanwhile, don't be fooled by the Hurricanes' No. 3 seed. As a result of leading the weak Southeast Division, the Canes are seeded No. 3, but the Devils have 95 points compared to the 'Canes at 91. This year, Arturs Irbe will be rested for the playoffs, unlike last year when he played a total of 82 regular season and playoff games combined. Nevertheless, the Hurricanes will easily bow down to the defending Eastern Champs.

Bottom Line: New Jersey's No. 7 seed is deceiving, but because of it, they get an easy first round matchup. Devils in 4.

Western Quarter Final: (4) St. Louis Blues vs. (5) Chicago Blackhawks

The St. Louis Blues are in the playoffs for a professional sporting record 23rd-year in a row, but they haven't even played in the Stanley Cup Finals since 1972. Their No. 4 seed is surprising. After trading No. 1 goalie Roman Turek to Calgary in the offseason, they put their hopes in between the pipes in Brent Johnson, with Fred Brathwaite as the backup.

Combined with decent depth at the skating positions, the Blues were able to clinch home ice on the strength of eight wins by Brathwaite and 34 wins by Johnson. However, Johnson has little playoff experience, and it will cost him and the Blues. The Blackhawks, unlike most teams this season, have been playing steady all season long, and nothing should change in the playoffs.

Bottom Line: This should be a great series, but Chicago will come out on top as the upsets continue to pile up against the Blues. Blackhawks in 7.

Eastern Quarter Final: (4) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (5) New York Islanders

The Maple Leafs are another team that has played steady all year long. Unlike last season, in which they were healthy all year but finished well under expectations at seventh in the conference, they were injury-prone this season but managed to battle through to win home ice in the first round. In a completely different universe, the Islanders have built through three years of drafting and the two major offseason acquisitions of Mike Peca and Alexei Yashin.

On offense, the Leafs have a definite edge, but, moreso in this series than any other, this series will come down to goaltending. Curtis Joseph is returning after missing 21 games due to a broken hand, and we'll see how much gas Chris Osgood has left in the tank after leading the Red Wings out of the playoffs early last season.

Bottom Line: This is the Leafs' year after three years of building a serious contender. Islanders still need improvement, but this year was a big step. Leafs in 5.

In short, my predicted semifinal matchups will be Boston vs. New Jersey and Toronto vs. Philadelphia in the East, and Detroit vs. Chicago and Colorado vs. San Jose in the West. Look for another classic Detroit vs. Colorado match in the Western Finals, and, for the third straight year in the playoffs, Toronto vs. New Jersey.

I'm sticking to my prediction of early October of a Toronto/Detroit Stanley Cup Final. As a Canadian, I'd like to see a Canadian team bring the Cup back home to Canada, but Detroit is just as strong (and, if not, stronger) as they were in 1997 and 1998.

Televised coverage will be on ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2 in the United States while Canadian networks covering the race for the Stanley Cup are CBC and SportsNet. Check out the complete TV schedule on NHL.com.

Sit back, relax, and enjoy. This playoff season looks to be a good one.

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Comments? Agree? Disagree? Send in your feedback about this article.

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