|Playoffs Ready to Take Way
|By Paul Noonan
Forget the concerns of weather the referees will continue their crackdown on obstruction now, in April. Forget all the pre- season predictions. Forget how well surprise teams such as Anaheim, New York, Carolina, Buffalo and Nashville, etc. It is a brand new season for the NHL. A season that will ice fourteen less teams. A season, that no matter what, always produces the best hockey you can hope to see. So here’s a look at the sixteen teams remaining.
CAROLINA HURRICANES: They shocked the league with their amazing season. Many expected them to drop off, but they never did. With a good mix of youth and experience, the ‘Canes are solid all around. Goalie Martin Gerber will be a huge factor in determining how far the ‘Canes go in the playoffs. How F Eric Staal handles his first postseason will also be a factor.
OTTAWA SENATORS: They are always in the mix come April, but goaltending always bites them in the butt. Once again the Sens are an Eastern Conference favorite, but with an ailing Dominik Hasek, the Sens may have to turn to rookie Ray Emery more than they expected. If the Senators’ goalies can step it up for a change there is no reason to think they won’t go deep in the playoffs, maybe even all the way.
NEW YORK RANGERS: Thanks to an outstanding rookie goalie (Henrik Lundqvist) and a return to form from Jaromir Jagr, the Rangers are back in the playoffs, and enjoyed their best season since their Cup run of ’94. However, for many of their players, the playoffs will be a new experience. Lundqvist will have to step it up even more if the Rangers hope to go deep.
BUFFALO SABRES: They were the only team that cut their payroll even though they were under the cap, the result their best season in history. The Sabres are an ideal team for the playoffs: a group of hard workers with great chemistry. In order to keep winning in the playoffs the Sabres will have to keep up that work ethic as well as get some more strong play between the pipes. This team could surprise.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: The Flyers had two teams this year, the one with Peter Forsberg and the one without him. The former team was better. Like Ottawa, the Flyers are usually a conference favorite, but shaky goaltending always hurts them. Nothing will change this year. Having Forsberg will help a little, but how reliable the goaltending tandem of Robert Esche and Antero Nittymakki is will determine if they end their Cup drought and live up to the hype.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: They got off to a sluggish start, but the Devils stormed back in the second half thanks to a return to form by goalie Martin Brodeur. Former BC standout Brian Gionta had a breakout season providing the Devils with some always needed offense. The only thing that may slow Jersey down is their weakened defense, no longer do the scary Scotts (Stevens and Neidermayer) patrol the blue line. Yet, as long as Brodeur is in net New Jersey always has a chance.
MONTREAL CANADIENS: Another solid season from Montreal, again highlighted by outstanding goaltending. Christobal Huet saved this team from oblivion thanks to his stellar netminding down the stretch. If he can keep his play up, Montreal has a chance at an upset or two.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: The defending champs barely made the playoffs, and underachieved most of the season. Goaltending has been the major flaw for this team, as well as inconsistent effort. They have a powerful offense, but how their goalies hold up will determine their fate. Still, they are the defending champs until someone proves otherwise.
DETROIT RED WINGS: Still old, but still in the playoffs. The Wings again quieted the critics with another dominant season. They also follow the noticeable trend of uncertainty between the pipes. Manny Legace will get his first chance as the #1 guy in the playoffs, how he fares will be a determining factor in how long the Wings last.
DALLAS STARS: They lost a little on the back end when Derian Hatcher left, but thanks to a re- invigorated Mike Modano, the Stars offense was as good as any in the league. The Stars added Willie Mitchell at the trade deadline so there defense is a little better now than at the start. This team is as good as any in the playoffs and should not be overlooked.
CALGARY FLAMES: The defending Western Conference champs improved down the stretch to prove they are still the team to beat. They did so even as captain Jarome Iginla underperformed. This team is physical and goals are hard to come by against them, even if you beat their D you still have to beat G Mikka Kiprusoff. If Iginla finds his form again this team may go from runners- up to champs.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: They had a great season that would have looked even better if Detroit wasn’t in the way. However, the Predators lost a big piece of the puzzle when G Tomas Vokoun was lost for the season and playoffs. The loss will likely turn this team from a potential threat to a pity story. Yet if the new goalie can overachieve and the other players step up their game, Nashville may be able to salvage a few rounds.
SAN JOSE SHARKS: Ever since Joe Thornton moved to Cali the Sharks went from drowning beneath the surface to seeking out their prey. The only thing that may slow the Sharks down is, surprise, goaltending. Vesa Toskala had a great year as a back- up, but probably won’t be the #1 come playoff time. Evgeni Nabokov will have to step up his game if the Sharks hope to go far.
ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS: Like Buffalo, Anaheim won mostly on hard work, chemistry and good goaltending. JS Giguere looks like his old self between the pipes and as he proved three years ago he can carry a team to the Finals. However, the Ducks offense may be too young to handle the tighter defensive play of the playoffs. Another Cinderella run may be a stretch.
COLORADO AVALNCHE: Losing Forsberg took a lot of bite out of this team, but they still have enough guns that they can pose a problem. The key to their success rides on trade deadline acquisition, G Jose Theodore. If Theodore can return to his MVP form of a few years ago, and bring back memories of Patrick Roy, the Avs could become an instant contender. If he falters it could be an early exit.
EDMONTON OILERS: Thanks to a few good deadline deals, the Oilers finished strong and secured a playoff berth. Another team that prides itself on work ethic, the Oilers are always a tough team to beat, and even tougher at home. Like many of the playoff teams, how well deadline acquisition G Dwayne Roloson handles the pressure will determine how far they go. Luckily, he has a strong defense in front of him.