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Inside The NHL

The Spoilers
Edmonton is the team to avoid in the Western Conference playoffs

Not long after the Oilers had thoroughly outplayed the Western
Conference-leading Avalanche in a 4-1 win on March 28,
Colorado's dazed goalie, Patrick Roy, noted the obvious: "The
Oilers are for real."

As of Sunday, Edmonton was on a 12-4-2-0 run that included a
franchise-record nine straight victories and brought its season
record to 38-27-11-3. The Oilers haven't lost three games in a
row since early November, but it's not only that Edmonton is
winning, it's the way the team plays that has the conference's
top clubs quaking in their skates. "They're scary," says Red
Wings general manager Ken Holland, "because they never stop
coming at you."

At week's end Edmonton was the fifth playoff seed, but with a
number of teams still battling for postseason position, the
Oilers could face any of the conference's four elite teams--the
Avalanche, Blues, Red Wings and Stars--in the first round. None of
them wants that matchup. "They're confident, and they play a hard
game," St. Louis general manager Larry Pleau says of the Oilers.
"They finish checks, they have a lot of speed, and [goalie] Tommy
Salo is a warrior."

Besides being loaded with young talent, Edmonton has a recent
history of beating higher seeds in Round 1. In 1997 the Oilers
upset the Stars, and in '98 they took out the Avalanche. Though
the Oilers fell to Dallas in the opening round the past two
years, seven of those eight losses were by one goal. "You know
you're in a game against them," says Stars coach Ken Hitchcock.
"They're physical, no lulls in their intensity."

Neither have there been many lulls in the play of Salo, who had
appeared in 69 games (second most in the NHL this season) and
maintained a .904 save percentage despite facing a
conference-high 1,591 shots. The Oilers' hard-hitting,
swift-skating style makes them particularly difficult to face in
a long series because they can wear down an opponent. Says
Edmonton general manager Kevin Lowe, "Teams know that win or
lose, we're going to get our pound of flesh."

Among the flesh takers are bullish wingers Anson Carter and Ryan
Smyth, who along with smooth center Mike Comrie make up the
Oilers' superb second line. Lowe acquired Carter from the Bruins
in November for Bill Guerin and signed Comrie, a 1999
fourth-round draft choice, the following month. For the first
time in several seasons Edmonton's offense doesn't rely
exclusively on the playmaking ability of All-Star center Doug

"We have two things this year: more depth and more experience,"
says Lowe. "Last year we lost some very close playoff games. This
year we think we can win them."

John MacLean's Comeback
From Old Moose To a Star

When you're a 36-year-old right wing who earns $2.5 million and
has been banished by one of the NHL's lousiest teams to the
Manitoba Moose, you'll take any big league job you can get. That
explains why John MacLean is so happy these days. A three-time
40-goal scorer, MacLean has spent two months digging in on a
checking line for the Stars. "He's been even better than we
thought he'd be," says Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock. "We send him
out against top lines, and he's completely committed."

The commitment wasn't evident when MacLean started the season
with the Rangers. After a sluggish training camp he was singled
out by coach Ron Low (he scratched MacLean for 15 of New York's
first 17 games) and G.M. Glen Sather ("MacLean can't get up and
down the ice anymore," Sather said in October) and then was put
on waivers. When no other team claimed him and MacLean refused a
buyout (he was in the final year of his contract), Sather sent
him to Manitoba on Nov. 15. "I thought, Why me?" MacLean says,
"but I knew I had to get through it. I wasn't ready to retire."

MacLean struggled with the Moose, scoring only six goals in 30
games. However, the Stars have revived the careers of several
aging players in recent years (forwards Kirk Muller, 35, and
Benoit Hogue, 34, to name two), and when New York agreed to pay
most of MacLean's salary, Dallas acquired him for future
considerations on Feb. 5. MacLean was ice fishing on the Red
River with Moose teammates when he found out about the deal. "I
wasn't asking many questions," he says. "When an organization
like that thinks you can help it, that's motivation."

Hitchcock put MacLean with Muller and Mike Keane, 33, to form
the Stars' grittiest and savviest line, and Dallas, which has
clinched first place in the Pacific Division, was on an 8-0-2 run
as of Sunday. "I just want to be a piece of the puzzle," MacLean
says. "I just want to help."

NHL Award Suggestion
Show Lady Byng The Door

We enjoy handicapping the year-end trophy winners as much as
anyone, but forgive us if we're not juiced about declaring who
should take home the Lady Byng Trophy. Rewarding an NHL player
for "gentlemanly conduct," as the Lady Byng does, is like
honoring the year's most modest Playmate. Hockey players aren't
supposed to be gentlemanly, unless that means saying "excuse me"
before slamming an opponent into the boards. The award, which in
recent years has been bestowed on players whose only credential
has been staying out of the penalty box (read: not playing very
tough defense), should be abolished.

The league, which gives 13 trophies at the end of each season,
should replace the 76-year-old Lady Byng with an award for the
best defensive defenseman. Honoring a stay-at-home defenseman
(the Norris Trophy is almost always given to a blueliner with
strong offensive numbers) would be welcome recognition to an
unheralded but indispensable type of player. After all, defensive
defensemen do the things--including delivering hard, clean
checks--that a hockey player is supposed to do.

COLOR PHOTO: JUAN O'CAMPO/2000 NHL IMAGES Rem Murray and the Oilers are every opponent's nightmare: tough, fast and determined.



Through Sunday they had 82 points and four games left: home
against the lowly Canadiens and lowlier Islanders, on the road
against the tough Sabres and tougher Devils.

They had 83 points with four games left: home against the lowly
Thrashers and the tough Penguins, on the road against the lowly
Rangers and the tough Blues.

The Verdict: Carolina had more wins (36 to 33), which is the
first tiebreaker, but with Boston goalie Byron Dafoe back from an
injury, we would rather be in the Bruins' skates.