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Detroit Slumping in Central; Philly Clinches Division Title

By Bo Light
and Brian Petersen
Sports Columnists

We were worried that we might not have enough space to talk about everything going on in the sports world this week. After all, it isn't every week that baseball opens its season, the NFL holds its draft, the hockey season winds down, and the NBA playoffs begin. Fortunately, our pals in Mudville handled the draft results, so we'll see what we can do about the rest of sports.

Our NFL draft preview last week put us a week behind on our NHL division reviews, so this week you get two for the price of one. First up, the Central division. The ex-Norris is definitely the stronger of the Western divisions, as even last-place Winnipeg is only two points from a playoff spot.

The Central's strength lies in the strong goaltending on its teams; Mike Vernon, Ed Belfour, Don Casey, Felix Potvin, and Andy Moog are hardly unknowns in the net. With defense being the key to playoff victories, any of these teams could find themselves playing for Lord Stanley's Cup at the end of next month.

It has seemed of late that Detroit, with the NHL's best record, might have an easy run through the playoffs; but don't buy your Finals tickets just yet. The Red Wings are suffering a defensive slump; they have given up five or more goals in four of their last six games, and as of Wednesday night still needed two points to clinch the division title. The Wings, notorious chokemeisters come May, need to pick things up again if they plan on winning their first Cup since 1955.

Over in the Atlantic division, Philadelphia has quietly become the first team to clinch its division, which the team accomplished with a weekend victory. The Flyers have emerged from a close early-season struggle to dominate the Atlantic in recent weeks, and like other division leaders, they did it with offense (142 goals). Philly might be hurt, however, by a lack of defense; only two teams in the division have given up more goals than the Flyers.

While defense has been excellent, the Atlantic teams have been hurting for goal production. Only the Flyers and Rangers have scored more than 125 goals; the average for the other three divisions is over 130 goals.

This lack of scoring hasn't prevented teams from winning games; only Tampa Bay and the Islanders have fewer than 40 points. The race for the last playoff spot is still open; even the Lightning could still get in, and with everyone gunning for the defending champion Rangers, look for the Florida Panthers to slip into the eighth spot next week.

The Batter's Box

Yes, baseball is finally back, and in case you didn't notice, every company with any kind of financial interest in the game has full-page ads in the papers begging the fans to come back to the game. Unfortunately, it will work, and the public will be suckered back into the game which turned its back on them last summer. But perhaps that's not all bad. As the epic traffic jam made its way past our house, and we watched the throngs of fans pouring down Commonwealth Avenue towards Fenway, we realized that, despite everything, we did miss the game. Welcome back, baseball.

NBA Insights

It's playoff time again in the NBA. After taking last May off, Air Jordan, the Lakers, and the Celts are back. Will Charles, Mr. Robinson, and the Mailman win their long-awaited first title or will they be denied by youngsters like Shaq, Penny Hardaway, Shawn Kemp, and Alonzo Mourning. So, without further ado, we at EASports will throw in our two cents on the playoffs.

There shouldn't be too many surprises first round surprises in the East. Shaq and Company will make sure that the Celtics will have only one more game in the Garden. In what should be billed as the most boring series ever, the Knicks should advance with no problems by holding the Cavs to under 50 points a game en route to a potential second match-up versus the Pacer.

Led by Reggie Miller's deadly outside shooting, the Pacers should cruise by the Hawks in four games. In a minor upset, the Bulls should march by the Hornets. The Bulls have been 13-4 since Jordan's return, and their three-oaf attack of Will Perdue, Bill Wennington, and Luc Longley should wear down "Zo." Look for the Bulls to win in four games.

In a rematch of last year's nail-biting conference finale, the Knicks should send Reggie and Company home early. The Knicks frontcourt of Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Charles Smith, and Anthony Mason have an edge over the Pacers frontline led by Rik Smits and Dale Davis.

The key to the series will be the Knicks backcourt, however. Can John Starks take the load off Ewing, or will he disappear like he did in Game 7 of the finals last year? If he's off, look out Knicks fans. In the other second round match-up, the Bulls will give Orlando all they can handle.

Sorry Tree Rollins fans, we regret to inform you that the Magics will be making an early exit for the second consecutive year, as Bill Wennington will carry the Bulls into the conference finals. Can Jordan carry the Bulls to another Eastern Conference crown? We think so. Bulls over the Knicks in six.

The West

Watch out Sonics fans, but be prepared for another first round exit. The Lakers were 4-1 during the regular season against Seattle, led by emerging superstars Nick Van Exel and Cedric Ceballos. Vlade Divac creates a major problem for the Sonics who are weak in the middle. Look for the Lakers to win in four.

Phoenix and San Antonio should have little trouble advancing to the second round with first round wins over Portland and Denver, respectively. Denver will be unable to repeat last year's miracle of knocking off a number one seed.

Look for the Houston-Utah series to go five games with the Jazz prevailing, as Hakeem Olajuwon and Carl Herrera will show the effects of having just come off the injured list.

In the second round, Utah will face Phoenix and San Antonio goes up against Los Angeles. San Antonio will end the Lakers championship dreams as their frontcourt of David Robinson and Dennis Rodman prove to be too dominant for Vlade to handle.

The Jazz-Phoenix series will be nothing less than exciting. Karl Malone and John Stockton will knock the Suns duo of Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson out of the playoffs.

In the conference finals, Utah will prevail over the Spurs on the strength of Jeff Hornacek's outside shooting, their ability to win on the road, and their tough defense.

Malone and Stockton will win their first championsihp rings as the Jazz defeat the Bulls in six games.

Trivia

The Bulls won three consecutive NBA crowns before Jordan's temporary leave of absence, meaning they won 12 consecutive playoff series. Who was the last team to win a playoff series against a Jordan-led Bulls team? Send answers, comments, and Celtics playoff tickets to easports@the-tech.mit.edu.

Answer to last week's question: Tampa Bay made running back Bo Jackson the number one selection of the 1986 draft. Congratulations to Henry Huang '96 for sending in the correct answer.