April 25th, 2003

Playoff Preview

D'Arcy McGrath


Parity.

A buzz word used in the National Hockey League, but more evident now than at any point in modern league history.

True there were only two true upsets in the first round of the playoffs; Anaheim dethroning the cup champ Wings, and Minnesota managing to induce mass suicide in Colorado, but the round itself featured six very difficult, hard fought series.

No more first round warm ups for cup contenders if you don't come early with the "A" game you end up golfing before the playoffs really get going.

Ottawa (1) vs. Philadelphia (4)
Senators (52-21-8-1, 113 pts); Flyers (45-20-13-4; 107 pts)
Season Series: 2-1-1 Ottawa

Unlike the other Eastern matchup, the Ottawa/Philly tilt may be the second round's marquee battle.

The Flyers will be out for a little revenge, looking to make amends for last year's first round debacle against the Senators in the first round of the playoffs.

The Senators, likely quite relieved to finally avoid the Toronto Maple Leafs on Stanley's trail, will hope to take advantage of a Flyer's team that may be spent after a seven game series that featured six overtime periods the equivalent of almost nine full games.

This one could be epic.

The Flyers now have a very astute field general in Ken Hitchcock, they won't repeat last year's mistakes. The Senators will have to further slay that large monkey on their backs, a monkey that still suggests they play their best hockey in the regular season, but come up empty when the pressure starts.

Time will tell.

It's the Senators year look for Ottawa to advance in five.

New Jersey (2) vs. Tampa Bay (3)
Devils (46-20-10-6; 108 pts); Lightning (36-25-16-5; 93 pts)
Season Series: 1-1-2

This series will prove to be the rounds' least entertaining, and likely less seen given the CBC focus on Canadian teams and TSN's choice of the Dallas Anaheim bout. Consider yourself lucky.

The two clubs combined may not hit double digits in goals in this one.

The upstart Bolts played a solid first round series against Washington, but will find the sledding considerably more difficult now that their opponent isn't a perennial playoff nervous Nellie.

The Devils are having a heck of a time scoring goals, but with Martin Brodeur in net, and Pat Burns barking defensive orders from the pine, they likely won't need many. Devils in 4.

Dallas (1) vs. Anaheim (7)
Stars (46-17-15-4, 111 pts); Mighty Ducks (40-27-9-6; 95 pts)
Season Series: 3-1-1 Dallas

Who would have thought?

It's unfair to group non-traditional hockey market expansion teams as teams that never will, but that doesn't change the fact that very few had the Ducks high on their list of darkhorse cup contenders.

That may be changing.

As the Ducks take their "Shock Show" on to Dallas and another Western Conference powerhouse would it be wise to discount their efforts again?

As much as another Steve Penney story may be gaining momentum out of Disney Land, the Ducks are more than an overly padded goaltender and some playoff bounces. They are well coached, and they are all pulling the vein from the same end a huge key to playoff success.

The Stars on the other hand were fortune enough to get exactly what they wanted out of their annual pilgrimage to Edmonton a tough series that they ended up winning. A good warm up on the basics for a team that missed the dance last year, but no serious injuries or consequences for later rounds.

In the end that lesson will prove to much for the Ducks as the Stars will recover from last night's two and half game loss and win the series in six.

Vancouver (4) vs. Minnesota (6)
Canucks (45-23-13-1; 104 pts); Wild (42-29-10-1; 95 pts)
Season Series: 2-2-1

Getting out of the West can be very, very difficult.

Most years a team has to get by at least two of the mega-teams (Dallas, Detroit, Colorado) leaving very little for the cup final, which makes the West's dominance of the final series so unbelievable in recent history.

The path got that much easier this year with the first round prat falls by Detroit and Colorado, setting up a potential Cinderella story for either of Vancouver or Minnesota.

That is if they don't beat the stuffing out of each other first.

The biggest obstacle for both of these upstart clubs is that of focus. Vancouver hadn't won a playoff series since 1995 and the Wild just achieved the feat for the first time in their brief NHL. The team that stops to rest on their new found laurels could find themselves in a big hole very early.

The Wild and Canucks are both very well coached, both have solid systems, and both appear to have bought in.

For the Canucks to be successful they'll need a strong showing from their top line a trio that hit a wall for the first half of their showdown with St. Louis, and get above average keeping from Dan Cloutier.

Less needs to go right for Minnesota in that they don't really rely on any one player, save their goaltender Manny Fernandez.

In the end, coaching and systems will make the difference as the Wild will advance to meet Dallas in the conference final. Wild in 7.

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