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NHL Playoff Season, Round One: Who to Look for, What to Expect

By Andrew C. Thomas

OPINION EDITOR

An exciting season of NHL Hockey is over. Now comes the second season -- two months of grueling, exciting playoff action. Here are my picks for the outcome of the first round.

Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference matchups this year are reasonably fresh. The traditionally weak Southeast Division is represented by two teams this year, Tampa and Washington. The matchups:

Ottawa Senators (1) vs. New York Islanders (8)

After two seasons with the Islanders, Alexei Yashin will be facing his old team for what promises to be an animated series. The statistics are all with Ottawa -- in goal, Patrick Lalime certainly has the edge over rookie Rick DiPietro and illegal equipment user Garth Snow.

Yashin has been unspectacular for most of the season but has been on a tear of late. If he can maintain his intensity and motivate his team --which, with captain Mike Peca, has more leadership than the Senators -- should make this series worth watching.

Prediction: Ottawa in 6.

New Jersey Devils (2) vs. Boston Bruins (7)

A midseason swan dive, a goaltending crisis, and a fired coach have given this Bruins team something to worry about. Jeff Hackett, acquired from the Canadiens midseason, has been injured, leaving inconsistent backup Steve Shields in net. Boston coach Robbie Ftorek was fired midseason, though the last time that happened his team (ironically, the Devils) went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Led by Joe Thornton, Glen Murray, and the returning Sergei Samsonov, the Bruins’ potent offense will come up squarely against the league’s stingiest defense. Martin Brodeur will likely be the man who makes or breaks this series.

Prediction: New Jersey in 7.

Tampa Bay Lightning (3) vs. Washington Capitals (6)

Legal trouble off the ice has made trouble for Caps star Jaromir Jagr, but the Bolts have been on a tear for the last month. Their combination of young talent in Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and the “Bulin Wall” Nikolai Khabibulin in goal, combined with the veteran talent of Dave Andreychuk and Vaclav Prospal, has been driving this team down the stretch.

Watch out for Olaf Kolzig in goal for the Caps, a regular season workhorse -- again, this will be a battle of goaltenders. (Anyone see a pattern here?) With their first-ever division championship, the Lightning will no doubt look to go deep this year.

Prediction: Tampa Bay in 5.

Philadelphia Flyers (4) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (5)

Full disclosure: I’m a diehard Leafs fan. But even with my bias, I still have no qualms in saying that this is Toronto’s year.

The Leafs’ Ed Belfour has had an MVP season in net; Roman Cechmanek did the same for Philly. However, Belfour has proved himself as a reliable playoff performer, whereas Cechmanek is fighting not only terrible playoff karma but also a nagging groin injury.

On a good day the Leafs have two prime scoring lines against the combination of Tony Amonte and Jeremy Roenick. Simon Gagne and John Leclair have been injured, and do not carry as much force of newly acquired Leafs winger Owen Nolan (a player courted by Philly GM Bobby Clarke).

The biggest concern for the Leafs, as it has been all year, is injury; with several regulars out for the last two weeks of the season, including leaders Gary Roberts and Doug Gilmour, they will need either to stay healthy, or have their replacements turn up their intensity as they did in last year’s playoffs.

Watch for this to be a grudge match between Leafs GM Pat Quinn and Flyers Clarke; this will also be a coaching battle between Quinn and Ken Hitchcock, who together led Canada’s Olympic team to a gold medal in last year’s games.

Prediction: Toronto in 6.

Western Conference

The fight for the West was long and drawn out this year -- in fact, not a single matchup was decided until Sunday afternoon. Six teams changed position during that day’s matchups. My picks follow:

Dallas Stars (1) vs. Edmonton Oilers (8)

God must have it in for the Edmonton Oilers, perennial losers to the Dallas Stars in their last several playoff appearances. However, the Stars have floundered of late, even with star goaltender Marty Turco, who set a new record for goals against average for a season with a shutout against Nashville on Sunday. Bill Guerin, the Stars’ main sniper, remains injured until late into this series at best.

Edmonton doesn’t seem to notice they traded their top scorer and defenseman at the deadline. However, they are the youngest team in the league; I would give the Oilers the edge if this series goes long. Just because they’re playing without marquee skaters doesn’t mean they aren’t a force to be reckoned with.

Prediction: Dallas in 5 (or, Edmonton in 7).

Detroit Red Wings (2) vs. the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (7)

Hockey’s perennial powerhouse, and Stanley Cup defending champion, face the team that held that title in the 1980s. Detroit ended its season on a tear, losing 5 of its last 27. Curtis Joseph represents the only major change for Detroit, replacing hero goaltender Dominik Hasek. While other acquisitions, like Mathieu Schneider on defense, should not be ignored, Cujo’s work with Detroit’s strong defense will be key.

The Ducks made the low-key acquisition of Steve Thomas (no relation) from Chicago, who turned around a weak season to score 10 goals in 12 games in his tenure in Anaheim. With fellow veteran Adam Oates, the Ducks will give the Wings a run for their money.

Prediction: Detroit in 5. (Though it breaks my heart; I’m with the Ducks in spirit.)

Colorado Avalanche (3) vs. Minnesota Wild (6)

In only their third year, the Wild have taken many by surprise. Staffed with no big-name talent, legendary coach Jacques Lemaire has managed to propel this team into the playoffs for the first time. Lemaire has the luxury of tuning his goaltending to the situation, choosing between Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez, which could make things interested compared to all-time wins leader Patrick Roy.

The immense scoring line of Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay, however, could prove too much for the Wild. Lemaire’s efforts will no doubt be aimed to shutting them down.

Prediction: Call me crazy, but my gut’s with the Wild in 7.

Vancouver Canucks (4) vs. St. Louis Blues (5)

Heartbroken after losing the division title on the last day of the season, the Canucks are showing signs of weakness. Rookie Alexander Auld has filled the net while regular goaltender Dan Cloutier recovers from injury; Markus Naslund lost the goal and point titles to Hejduk and Forsberg of the Avalanche; and the team seems to be slowly losing energy.

Meanwhile the Blues recently regained the services of captain Chris Pronger; along with replacement captain and slapshot king Al MacInnis and rookie sensation Barret Jackman, the Blues’ defensive corps looks to be one of the most solid in the league, bolstered by the acquisition of Chris Osgood in goal. Vancouver’s potent offense will have to find greater depth than their first line in order to beat this team.

Prediction: Blues in 5.

No doubt many of you will disagree with my picks; however, luck is an enormous part of playoff success. Older teams might tend to slow down as the playoffs drag on; however, they’ll still be getting more rest than in the regular season. This playoff season, like those in recent memory, will be nervous and exciting.