This may be the most competitive final 16 tournament in Stanley Cup history, with few obvious patsies and no clear favourites.
And, I might add, no San Jose, my pick for the Cup at the start of the year. Ooops.
For the most part, all teams seem to be entering the tournament fairly healthy, only the Blues and Stars with a still wonky Chris Pronger, Bill Guerin and Pierre Turgeon, having major players in questionable condition.
As seems to be the usual case, the first round of the playoffs may provide the most entertainment, the greatest mystery. Three series stand out as being too close to call, Philadelphia/Toronto and Vancouver/St. Louis while I've rolled the dice and picked an upset in another series, Boston to beat out New Jersey.
Ottawa (1) vs. NY Islanders (8)
Senators (52-21-8-1, 113 pts); Islanders (35-34-11-2; 83 pts)
Season Series: 2-1-1 Ottawa
OTTAWA/NY ISLANDERS - This is one President's Cup team that won't fall flat on its face in the opening round, particularly in the face of the slumping Islanders, accused of being losers by their own captain, Mike Peca. Ottawa, in spite of its playoff baggage, is facing an Islander team which staggered across the finish line, finishing ahead of their arch-rival Rangers only because the latter floated, as per usual, through most of the season. Giving the Islanders some hope is Peca and the fact Alexei Yashin actually turned his game up a bit towards the end of the year but neither factor should be enough to dislodge the machine-like Senators. It would be easy to point out the star qualities of Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and Radek Bonk but the key to the Senators playoff run will be the health of Zdeno Chara on defence. Ottawa in four.
Philadelphia (4) vs. Toronto (5)
Flyers (45-20-13-4; 107 pts); Maple Leafs (44-28-7-3; 98 pts)
Season Series: 2-2-0
PHILADELPHIA/TORONTO - This is the best Toronto team in 36 years, a squad even Leaf-Haters must offer some grudging respect. More ominously, the Leafs seem to be arriving at a healthy stage just in time for the playoffs, although Doug Gilmour will still be shelved. The same qualities of veteran leadership and grinding guts that took the Leafs a surprisingly long way last year have changed little in the last year. Ed Belfour surprised his critics by turning in a very credible season. He's gone all the way before and that kind of experience makes Toronto a legitimate threat in what may be their best chance to win a Stanley Cup since 1967. And given the age of this team, probably the last chance as well. On the other side, the Flyers have been gaining a reputation for choking in the post-season, strangling themselves with their own bare hands given this is a team that should have had more success than it did. But Ken Hitchcock has turned them into one of the better defensive teams in the NHL and a puzzlingly anemic offence began to round into form in the final weeks of the year, aided by the addition of Tony Amonte who has done wonders for the game of Jeremy Roenick. More disappointment in Leafland as the Flyers win this one in six.
New Jersey (2) vs. Boston (7)
Devils (46-20-10-6; 108 pts); Bruins (36-31-11-4; 87 pts)
Season Series: 2-1-1 New Jersey
NEW JERSEY/BOSTON - The only genuine upset of the first round, Boston will overcome its lack of consistent goaltending with an offence that's well nigh superior to that of the defence-first Devils. The addition of Sergei Samsonov gives the Bruins a dimension they had lacked for much of their tail-spin through mid-year. The machine-like Devils will have to grind this affair into a low-scoring mistake-free contest and take advantage of the Bruins lack of confidence in their own netminding. Just a gut feeling, but the Bruins will take this series in six when the Devils can't score enough. It would be a mammoth upset.
Tampa Bay (3) vs. Washington (6)
Lightning (36-25-16-5; 93 pts); Capitals (39-29-8-6; 92 pts)
Season Series: 3-2-0 Washington
TAMPA/WASHINGTON - A pick 'em series between two equally non-descript teams, both anchored by high quality netminding in Nik Khabibhulin and Olaf Kolzig. Jaromir Jagr, along with Peter Bondra, have the ability to be the difference makers in this series while Tampa, in cliche-like fashion, might just be happy to be there. Washington in six.
Dallas (1) vs. Edmonton (8)
Stars (46-17-15-4, 111 pts); Oilers (36-26-11-9; 92 pts)
Season Series: 3-1-0 Dallas
DALLAS/EDMONTON - There are too many young guys here for the Oil to overcome the very experienced Stars. The disparity this year between Tommy Salo and Marty Turco was also fairly surprising and particularly ominous for the Oil who would need to win the goaltending battle to have any hope in this series. Edmonton needs to hope that the early absence of Bill Guerin and Pierre Turgeon will make a material difference sufficient for them to get a leg up on the Stars but Dallas probably has too many weapons and Edmonton too much inexperience for that to happen. Dallas in five.
Detroit (2) vs. Anaheim (7)
Red Wings (48-20-10-4; 110 pts); Mighty Ducks (40-27-9-6; 95 pts)
Season Series: 3-1-0 Detroit
DETROIT/ANAHEIM - Detroit limped to the finish line but has simply too much experience and too many weapons to be bothered with giving the Ducks more than a cursory glance on the way to more important things. The Ducks surprised many with their season but will need a tour de force performance in net from ex-Flame farmhand Jean Sebastien Giguere, in the same manner as Winnipeg's Nik Khabibulin against the Wings in 1996, to have any chance. Detroit in four.
Colorado (3) vs. Minnesota (6)
Avalanche (42-19-13-8; 105 pts); Wild (42-29-10-1; 95 pts)
Season Series: 2-1-2 Colorado
COLORADO/MINNESOTA - Peter Forsberg is the best player in the NHL right now, a one man wrecking crew and the under-estimated Wild won't be able to do anything to alter the fact the Avs are two or three levels better than Minnesota in a seven game series. The only hope the Wild will have will be to use its admirable team speed to take advantage of the one weak spot Colorado might have, its blueline corps. An upset here is not impossible, however, in that Colorado will have to be patient in its approach, not being sucked into trying to run and gun the Wild given that always opens the vault for a superb counter-attack trapping team like Minnesota. This won't be pretty but the Avs will prevail in five.
Vancouver (4) vs. St. Louis (5)
Canucks (45-23-13-1; 104 pts); Blues (41-24-11-6; 99 pts)
Season Series: 2-1-1 Vancouver
VANCOUVER/ST. LOUIS - Another pick 'em series, both teams with huge pluses and a few negatives. Bothmight have serious question marks in net and, as a result, this could be the highest scoring series in the playoffs this year, St. Louis and Vancouver both with star-quality offensive players. For all his recent foibles, Chris Osgood has a Stanley Cup ring and Dan Cloutier, slow recovering from a recent injury, has the memory of a critical goal scored from centre ice one year ago. The Blues also have better depth on their forward lines. That may be enough to sink one of my favourite teams. St. Louis in seven.
THE ULTIMATE PREDICTION - Ottawa will win the Stanley Cup this year because they won't face the Leafs. Patrick Lalime will be the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy. Pigs will also fly but anyone pulling for the underdog has their first serious Stanley Cup candidate in years with the Senators. . . . . . For the Flames and other also-rans the more mayhem and bitter failure in the playoffs the better given it may convince teams with all the talent to make some ill-considered changes in the off-season.