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
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
Eastern Quarterfinal: (1) Boston Bruins vs. (8) Montreal
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Eastern Quarter Final: (4) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (5) New York
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.