They are as competitive a trio as rock, scissors and paper. The
rebuilt Detroit Red Wings have won two straight Stanley Cups and
have the best coach in sports. The Colorado Avalanche has three
of this season's top 10 scorers and the best playoff goalie in
history. The Dallas Stars have a savvy, veteran team that ran
away and hid so effectively during the regular season that the
rest of the league couldn't find them with the Hubble telescope.
They all play in the Western Conference. Heading into the
postseason, these three teams find themselves in the most
crowded scene since Groucho's stateroom in A Night at the Opera.
"The only time I can think of when you had three teams like this
bunched in one conference was the '80s, with Edmonton, Calgary
and Chicago," says Stars coach Ken Hitchcock. "You knew the
playoff road was going through those teams. This season Detroit
made those moves at the trading deadline [acquiring defensemen
Chris Chelios and Ulf Samuelsson, left wing Wendel Clark and
goalie Bill Ranford] and got a lot stronger; Colorado has huge
impact players [goalie Patrick Roy and forwards Peter Forsberg,
Joe Sakic and Theo Fleury]; and we keep moving along. We're all
better than we were last year."
According to NHL protocol, an Eastern Conference team must fill
one spot in the Stanley Cup finals, reasonable enough considering
that neither the New Jersey Devils nor the Ottawa Senators look
as if they have a case of the shorts, although they may need a
pair of Bermudas by the time the playoffs are over. Game 7 of the
finals--a fond wish given four years of sweeps--is scheduled for
June 22, and if that's when the champion is crowned, it would
mark the first time an NHL season had spanned the fall, winter,
spring and summer. So while waiting to throw those all-season
radials on your Zamboni, ponder the following playoff questions.
Will the other Great One retire?
After Chelios's and Clark's first game with Detroit, Suella
Bowman opined to an old acquaintance that the end of the 1998-99
season would be a fine time for her 65-year-old husband, Scotty,
the Red Wings' coach, to call it a career. Of course, she was
tugging her soul mate gently in that direction last summer, but
Bowman bulled on--through the death of his brother, Jack; through
knee-replacement surgery; through a heart procedure. Bowman has
now coached his teams to 1,096 regular-season wins to go with a
record-tying eight Cups, the last two with Detroit. What more
does he need to accomplish before he's ready to retire?
"The decision is Scotty's," Detroit general manager Ken Holland
says. "In the past I think what's happened in the playoffs--our
winning the Cup--has had some impact on his decisions to return.
If we win the Cup and Scotty gets the record [Bowman shares it
with Toe Blake], maybe it'll have an impact in a different way."
If Ottawa wins the Stanley Cup, will hockey as we know it end?
Absolutely. Just five years ago the question was, Can a team
with a strong European component win the Cup? The 1994 New York
Rangers, who had four Russians, were the first to answer
affirmatively, though if the distinctly Eurocentric Senators
triumph--in a given game eight of their nine top forwards and
three of their six best defensemen are Europeans--the question
becomes, Can you win a Cup without a significant European
Ottawa might be quietly revolutionizing the game in other ways
as well. The Senators, who had the fewest penalty minutes in
each of the last three seasons, have redefined traditional
notions of hockey toughness. They show their mettle with puck
pursuit, speed and discipline. "For us, toughness is bouncing up
quickly after getting knocked down and not backing down," right
wing Daniel Alfredsson says. "You don't need stupid penalties,
especially in the playoffs."
At the trading deadline first-year general manager Rick Dudley
swapped his only certified roughneck, forward Chris Murray, to
the Chicago Blackhawks for a skilled smurf, forward Nelson
Emerson. "I think people are already starting to emulate what's
been going on here," Dudley says. "When you finish with more
than 100 points, it gets noticed."
Will Colorado reunite the Superman Line?
Sakic, Forsberg and Fleury probably aren't even afraid of
kryptonite--"I don't think anyone can stop us when we're
together," Fleury says--but first-year coach Bob Hartley, in a
nod to the conventional playoff wisdom of balanced lines, will
use them together at even strength only if the Avalanche needs a
spark or a big goal. So Forsberg will center Claude Lemieux and
rookie Chris Drury, and Sakic is set to play with Fleury and
rookie Milan Hejduk.
Fleury, who was acquired from the Calgary Flames on Feb. 28,
marvels at how good the chemistry is when he, Forsberg and Sakic
team up, but he believes the trio will be a force no matter how
they're used. "I don't think there have been three offensive
players with our skill level on one team since Edmonton in the
'80s," he says, "and all the Oilers did was win four Stanley
Is Dallas too old and too slow?
At first glance the Stars look so doddering that if they won the
Cup, they would drink champagne only to wash down their
early-bird dinners. They are, in fact, sneaky young. While
Dallas is loaded with veterans such as 39-year-old face-off king
Guy Carbonneau and 38-year-old shot-blocking defenseman Craig
Ludwig, the only player 34 or older who routinely plays more
than 15 minutes a game is right wing Brett Hull. To keep
everyone fresh, Hitchcock scheduled just four practices in
February and March combined. "And in the last month, when we've
gotten a lead, I haven't used Mike Modano or Jere Lehtinen much
in the second half of a game," the coach says of two of his
elite forwards. Hitchcock, who can nag like an in-law, also has
done less screaming at his players, mostly because the Stars are
as tough on themselves as he is on them. "Over the past two
years they've come to understand the huge emotional commitment
that needs to be made," Hitchcock says. "This group is able to
judge itself in black-and-white terms. The kinds of things
they're saying to each other now were what the coaches were
saying in October."
While the Stars aren't quarter horses, they haven't exactly been
Clydesdales since the March deals for swift forwards Derek
Plante and Benoit Hogue. "I've never thought of Dallas as slow,"
Detroit captain Steve Yzerman says. "I think of them as real
physical and cagey, a team that battles, a team with a lot of
intelligence that knows what it wants to do and how to do it."
Who stands to lose the most?
Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider has said general manager Bob
Clarke is "like a son" to him, which, come to think of it, is
what Abraham said about Isaac as he prepared the sacrifice.
Clarke's job seems safe, but a hasty playoff exit--almost
expected given the injury (collapsed lung) to star center Eric
Lindros--will only further erode the G.M.'s reputation as a
shrewd team builder. Clarke has been on a two-year losing streak
that began with the Flyers' meltdown in the 1997 finals (a sweep
by Detroit) and continued with the ill-advised hiring of coach
Wayne Cashman, the costly free-agent signing of unproductive
forward Chris Gratton and the inexplicable dawdling in obtaining
a premier goalie. (Philly finally signed John Vanbiesbrouck last
July.) Clarke rapidly built the Flyers into a Cup challenger
after taking over as general manager in 1994, but even with
unqualified ownership support and a huge budget, he hasn't taken
them to the next level.
Will Toronto be able to beat fellow Eastern Conference teams?
You can take Toronto out of the Western Conference--as the NHL
did after last season--but you can't take the Wild West out of
Toronto. The Leafs were 24-2-0 against the largely free-flowing
Western Conference teams this season but only 25-26-5 against
the tenacious East. Toronto is as close to a river hockey club
as you can find in this age of caution, and is dependent on the
explosiveness of forwards such as Mats Sundin and on goalie
Curtis Joseph's knack for making the big save.
"We don't have a team designed to grind it out on the boards, so
we try to make the best of the skills we do have," coach Pat
Quinn says. "In the playoffs we're going to force [Eastern
Conference] teams to play our way. They're going to have to
defend us, and we're better offensively than we were. We're also
better at their game than we were early in the season."
Will New Jersey finally fill up the net?
The Devils finished second to Toronto in regular-season goals
but still must kick their habit of making every opposing playoff
goalie look like Jacques Plante. Getting four goals in five
games against the Rangers' Mike Richter in a 1997 second-round
loss was understandable; putting only 11 past Ottawa's Damian
Rhodes in six games of a first-round defeat last spring was
ridiculous. "Last year was just a disaster," says New Jersey
center Bobby Holik. But an emerging scoring line of Jason
Arnott, Petr Sykora and Patrik Elias, the increasing willingness
of defensemen other than Scott Niedermayer to join the rush, and
coach Robbie Ftorek's tolerance for the occasional defensive
lapse give the Devils more confidence in the attacking zone.
What lower-seeded clubs could be a favorite's worst nightmare?
The San Jose Sharks might not beat Colorado in the first round,
but they could pound on the Avalanche like a mallet on flank
steak for six or seven games. The Sharks are skilled in hockey's
black arts, drawing penalties by relentlessly driving to the net
and punishing opposing forwards with a style that varies between
merely nasty and unabashedly dirty. The most dangerous Shark is
defenseman Bryan Marchment, who in Game 1 of the 1998 playoffs
blew out Joe Nieuwendyk's knee by running him into the boards,
effectively crippling Dallas's Cup hopes less than a period into
the postseason. San Jose also has a playoff-hardened goalie in
two-time Cup winner Mike Vernon and an offense bolstered by
trading-deadline acquisition Vincent Damphousse, a forward who
had been suffocating with the Montreal Canadiens but who
flourished with the Sharks (13 points in 12 games).
The Boston Bruins are another potential land mine for
higher-seeded opponents. Boston employed a playoff style all
season, making simple passes, dumping the puck, playing with a
mix of irritability and discipline that works well in the
spring. The Bruins rarely beat themselves, allowing an NHL-low
3.7 power plays per game and killing them at an 89.2% rate.
Goalie Byron Dafoe had the league's second-best save percentage
(.926), and center Joe Thornton emerged in his second season to
give Boston two scoring lines. Says coach Pat Burns proudly,
"We're a pain in the ass."
So who will win the Stanley Cup?
Last October, SI picked Dallas, and we're sticking with the team
even though Detroit is fabulous and Colorado is dangerous.
Whichever team survives the anticipated second-round Armageddon
between the Red Wings and the Avalanche could be in tatters by
the time it plays Dallas in the conference finals. In the NHL's
endless season the Stars, who will bounce the Devils for the
Cup, might even be hailed as the Boys of Summer.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Collision course Kris Draper (33) and the Wings could face Adam Deadmarsh's Avalanche in a finals-like second-round matchup.
COLOR PHOTO: V. J. LOVERO Led by Arnott (below), the Devils hope to keep from making opposing goalies look like Jacques Plante.
SI special contributor Pierre McGuire analyzes the first-round
Teams Goal- Offense Defense Special Coaching
The Skinny tending Teams
8. Pittsburgh Penguins *
1. New Jersey Devils * * * * *
The Penguins' Jaromir Jagr is the most gifted player in the
league, but he cannot win the series by himself. The Devils'
young guns are finally ready for prime time. New Jersey in six.
7. Buffalo Sabres *
2. Ottawa Senators * * * *
Buffalo has the world's best goalie, Dominik Hasek, but Ottawa
has more overall skill and desire. Watch for Senators forward
Daniel Alfredsson to have a big series because the Sabres will
key on star Alexei Yashin. Ottawa in seven.
6. Boston Bruins * * * * *
3. Carolina Hurricanes
Boston's ability to create offense down low will expose
Carolina's soft defense. Special teams will also play a crucial
role in the outcome--and the Bruins will dominate that facet of
the game. Boston in six.
5. Philadelphia Flyers * * *
4. Toronto Maple Leafs * * *
Without the injured Eric Lindros, the Flyers are a shell of
themselves. The difference will be in net, where the Leafs'
Curtis Joseph has the edge over Philly's John Vanbiesbrouck.
Toronto in seven.
Teams Goal- Offense Defense Special Coaching
The Skinny tending Teams
8. Edmonton Oilers
1. Dallas Stars * * * * *
Even the suspension of Stars captain Derian Hatcher for five
playoff games can't help the Oilers overcome the injuries to
their two top goal scorers, forwards Bill Guerin and Josef
Beranek. Dallas in five.
7. San Jose Sharks * *
2. Colorado Avalanche * * *
The Avalanche has the speed and skill, but the Sharks' intensity
and grit will make life miserable for Colorado. Goaltender
Patrick Roy should be the difference. Colorado in seven.
6. Anaheim Mighty Ducks *
3. Detroit Red Wings * * * * *
The Red Wings must contain scorers Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne
and stay out of the penalty box because the Ducks have the
league's top power play. The Wings, however, have too much
talent. Detroit in six.
5. St. Louis Blues * * * *
4. Phoenix Coyotes *
Injuries and an unreliable power play will kill the Coyotes. The
Blues have a fine defensive system and a plethora of no-name
talent. Center Pierre Turgeon, though, must finally prove he can
star in the postseason. St. Louis in six.