April 9th, 2003
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
If you're the Ottawa Senators, what do you do for an encore? The bankrupt Senators have already defied the odds and became the first Canadian team since the 1989 Flames to win the President's Trophy. The pressure is now on them to finally enjoy some playoff success for the first time in franchise history.
Keys for Ottawa: Marian Hossa and Daniel Alfredsson will be called upon to lead this team offensively, while Patrick Lalime will have to be on top of his game. One advantage the Sens have this year compared to previous years is the addition of grinders such as Vaclav Varada and Rob Ray.
Keys for New York: This Islanders team is not all that different from last year's incarnation that took the Maple Leafs to the limit. If Mike Peca can remain healthy and Alexei Yashin plays up to his capabilities, they will be tough to beat despite having only won six games since mid-February.
Prediction: Early in this series, the Sens may be caught slightly overconfident and quite possibly looking ahead to their next opponent. It's likely the Sens will recover to play solid hockey the rest of the way but if it comes down to a Game 7 anything can happen. Islanders in 7.
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
Last season the Devils were on the outside looking in for all but five games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This year the Devils have played the entire season on a mission to erase the memories of Spring 2002. The Bruins started out the season on a tear but have been hanging by a thread since December to simply gain a playoff birth.
Keys for New Jersey: Martin Brodeur is only 30 years old but already has two Stanley Cup rings, an Olympic gold medal and close to 400 career wins. As long as he's in goal, the Devils are Cup contenders.
Keys for Boston: Even if Sergei Samsonov and Joe Thornton are dominant offensively, there are still questions in goal. Shields has slightly more playoff experience but both goalies struggled down the stretch.
Prediction: The Devils have learned from last year's early playoff exit and not only are they a better team this time around, they're also hungrier. Their first victim in the 2003 playoffs will be Boston en route to the franchise's third Stanley Cup. Devils in 4.
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
Before writing off this Southeast Division match-up as a non-factor in the Stanley Cup playoffs, don't forget that last year's Eastern Conference Champion came from this division. While a trip to the Finals is unlikely for either of these teams, you never know.
Keys for Tampa Bay: What the Lightning lack in experience they make up with enthusiasim and Nikolai Khabibulin. He's a good enough goaltender that if he puts up career numbers in these playoffs the Lightning are a real threat to go three-deep in the playoffs. This postseason could also be Vincent Lecavalier's coming-out party. He's quietly put up a monster season in Tampa.
Keys for Washington: Simply put, the Capitals need a healthy and effective Jagr to go anywhere in the playoffs. In his most recent playoffs, he only had two goals in 16 games as the Penguins reached the conference finals in 2001.
Prediction: Tampa Bay may not look as good as Washington on paper but they're miles ahead in team chemistry. Lightning in 7.
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
At the end of this series there is going to be one very unhappy hockey team. Both the Leafs and Flyers have spent the past month loading up for what each expects will be a lengthy playoff run. However, the reality is that just over a week from now one of these teams will be heading home for the summer.
Keys for Philadelphia: The failure to bring in a playoff-seasoned goaltender is likely to haunt Bobby Clarke yet again. For the Flyers to be successful they need to score often while at the same time playing tight enough defensively that Cechmanek's weaknesses aren't exposed. That type of hockey is much more successful in the regular season hence the Flyers' lack of playoff success.
Keys for Toronto: Two words, stay healthy. Pat Quinn and Bill Watters have built a team that has enough depth to compensate for a high injury count but the biggest obstacle in the way of a deep playoff run is the risk that the club will simply be worn down.
Prediction: Say what you will about the Toronto Maple Leafs but they possess a lot of heart. That and Ed Belfour should be enough to carry them into the second round. Leafs in 7.
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
After a one-year hiatus here we are again with the Dallas Stars against the Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs. With the exception of 2002 when both clubs missed the postseason, the Oilers and Stars have got it on every year since 1997. The biggest difference between this Stars team and the ones in years past is the fact that a playoff rookie – Marty Turco – will be tending goal for Dallas this season.
Keys for Dallas: Dallas needs to overcome injuries early and hope that Marty Turco can play in the playoffs. Sheer talent should get them past the Oilers.
Keys for Edmonton: MVP or not, Tommy Salo has to play better than he did in the regular season or this will be a short series. The Oilers' will boast a lot of rookies playing their first playoff series and need them to contribute.
Prediction: As always, this will be one of the more exciting series. Every game will be close but in the end Dallas is a better team. Stars in 6.
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
The defending Stanley Cup champions kick off the 2003 playoffs against a team that hasn't seen the postseason in several years. The Red Wings came on strong this past month, ringing off eleven straight victories since the return of Steve Yzerman to the lineup.
Keys for Detroit: A healthy Yzerman for the playoffs could be dangerous and hasn't been seen around these parts for years. If Yzerman can't carry the load, Fedorov will need to be better than he was last year (5 goals in 23 games) or a Cup repeat will be a tall order.
Keys for Anaheim: Anaheim's two biggest weaknesses lie in its two best players. Jean-Sebastien Giguere has never been the number one goaltender as part of a lengthy playoff run in his playing career. In fact, Giguere hasn't played in the playoffs since being hooked for an 18-year-old Dany Sabourin in a deciding game in his final days in Saint John. Paul Kariya has struggled down the stretch with only one goal in his last 18 games.
Prediction: Like last year, Detroit will start off slow but recover in time to knock off the Mighty Ducks. The Wings have too much experience to fall in the first round to Anaheim. Red Wings in 7.
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
In the only other intra-divisional match-up in the first round of these playoffs, Minnesota makes its first return to the Stanley Cup playoffs since the North Stars fell to Detroit in seven games in 1992. Historically, expansion teams have been difficult to dispose of in their inaugural playoff series and a boisterous Minnesota crowd getting behind its Wild should propel the club to some postseason success.
Keys for Colorado: It reads like an all-star game roster: Forsberg, Sakic, Hejduk, Blake, Roy. The Avs' forwards can't allow themselves to be frustrated by Minnesota's stifling defensive play. Rookie head coach Tony Granato is going to be out-coached by the savvy Lemaire in this series and he can only hope that his huge talent advantage will make the difference.
Keys for Minnesota: The biggest key for the Wild is their coaching. In the playoffs the importance of coaching is magnified and this is one position where the Wild have the advantage. Their goaltending is solid but not playoff calibre. It might be enough to get them out of this round. Both Roloson and Fernandez will see significant action in this series.
Prediction: Minnesota needs to split the first two games in Colorado. They've had a lot of success at home this season and might be able to take control of the series in Games 3 and 4. Wild in 7.
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
This series has the potential to be one of the most exciting of the entire playoffs. Not only can both teams run and gun but incidents earlier this year has created some bad blood between the two organizations. There should be something for everyone in this series.
Keys for Vancouver: The biggest question heading into the playoffs is how healthy is Ohlund and Cloutier? Ohlund likely won't be back until at least Game 3 and even then he won't be near 100%. Cloutier will likely play the rest of the regular season hurt. Bertuzzi and Naslund obviously need to figure in most of Vancouver's goals for the Canucks to have a chance.
Keys for St. Louis: Chris Osgood has something to prove and could end up being a black ace for the Blues. Having a healthy Pronger and MacInnis on the blueline would help carry St. Louis a long way in the playoffs.
Prediction: Sometimes the playoffs are all about timing and the way the Canucks lost the division title will probably continue to put a sour taste in their mouth. It's not likely they recover in time and a Cloutier at less than 100% won't help, either. Blues in 6.