April 7, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 99  

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SPORTS

The Gazette’s 2004 NHL playoff preview

Western Conference

By James Gibson
Gazette Staff

This year’s NHL Stanley Cup playoffs are looking to be as tight as the bouncers at GT’s on a Thursday night.

For the first time in recent years, the Western Conference matchups seem to be overshadowed by the abundance of great teams and close matchups within the East.

But one can’t overlook the vast amount of talent in the West, especially when looking at teams like Calgary, Detroit and Colorado.

Detroit Red Wings (1)
vs. Nashville Predators (8)

The first-seeded, Presidents’ Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings are looking to eliminate the eighth-seeded Nashville Predators, who are making their first playoff birth in franchise history.

Although Nashville is a young, fast and skilled team, Detroit’s offensive power, massive depth and veteran experience will dominate Nashville’s inexperienced playoff lineup. The addition of “Mr. Overtime Himself,” Steve “Stumpy” Thomas, adds even more leadership to an already stacked roster, not to mention the offensive explosion of Pavel Datsyuk this season, and the late-season pickup of Robert Lang.

Look for Detroit to prey on the Predators’ hopes and dreams in five games.

San Jose Sharks (2)
vs. St. Louis Blues (7)

The matchup of the second-seeded San Jose Sharks and the seventh- seeded St. Louis Blues will defiantly be an interesting one.

San Jose is heading into the playoffs red hot, boasting an 8-2 record in their last 10 games. While on the other side of the ice, St. Louis has been fighting for a playoff spot and against injuries for most of the season. Without the likes of defensemen Al MacInnis and Barret Jackman, St. Louis’ defensive core is questionable at best, even with Pronger healthy.

Watch for the Sharks’ top Canadian forwards Patrick Marleau and Alyn McCauley to make a big splash on their way to a six game win over St. Louis.

Vancouver Canucks (3)
vs. Calgary Flames (6)

This series will probably be one of the most watched playoff series’ in the first round this year.

Calgary goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff set the NHL record for goals against average this year (1.69), and is having an outstanding season.

Vancouver’s playoff hopes are looking very slim with the loss of forward Todd Bertuzzi to a suspension late in the regular season. With Calgary, Kiprusoff and Jarome Iginla RED HOT, the Canucks will have their hands full without the much needed leadership and scoring of Bertuzzi, especially since they are still clinging to “playoff failure” goaltender Dan Cloutier to carry their team to victory.

This series will be a close one, but look for Calgary to upset Vancouver in six games.

Colorado Avalanche (4)
vs. Dallas Stars (5)

By far the closest series in the first round of the Western Conference, it will be fought out between the fourth-seeded Colorado Avalanche and the fifth-seeded Dallas Stars. Both teams are loaded with playoff experience, except with regards to goaltending.

Neither team has a proven playoff performing goaltender, but Dallas has the advantage of Marty Turco, who has been great in the regular season.

Colorado’s offense stacks some big names with players like Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and the new additions of Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. Colorado seems to posses the right amount of offensive depth to make up for a possible goaltending breakdown.

That being said, watch for Colorado to squeak into the second round this year in seven games.

Eastern Conference

By Ian Denomme
Gazette Staff

After 1,230 regular season games, the NHL playoffs are finally here. There were many highs and lows during the season, but the playoffs promise to be one of the closest and hardest to predict in recent years.

This is especially true in the Eastern Conference. There were six different teams that reached the 100-point plateau, and those top six teams were only separated by six points. Whoever survives the East will definitely have to earn it.

Tampa Bay Lightning (1)
vs. New York Islanders (8)

Tampa Bay was the NHL’s surprise team of the year. Few, if any, experts picked them to lead the East and challenge Detroit for the Presidents’ Trophy.

The Lightning are led by the NHL’s leading scorer and Hart Trophy candidate, Martin St. Louis. St. Louis, along with other speedy and highly skilled forwards such as Vincent Lecavalier, wily veteran Dave Andreychuk and Brad Richards, will be a lot for the Islanders defense to contain. The Islanders will have to rely on the streaky Alexei Yashin and Mariusz Czerkawski for their offense.

The Lightning have run into a bit of a goaltending controversy lately as Nikolai Khabibulin and John Grahame battle for the No. 1 spot. However, either one is an upgrade from the Islanders’ combo of Rick DiPietro and Garth Snow.
The Islanders are a much more physical team, but lack the depth and talent of the Lightning. Tampa Bay in five.

Boston Bruins (2)
vs. Montreal Canadiens (7)

The Bruins had another strong season under new coach Mike Sullivan, but they know first-hand that success in the regular season doesn’t translate into post-season success.

The Bruins could also be without their best player in Joe Thornton, who is still day-to-day with an “upper body” injury. Montreal meanwhile, comes into the playoffs on a bit of a slide. They won Saturday to end a five- game slide.

This series could come down to goaltending. Andrew Raycroft had a stellar season, and is the favourite to win the Calder Trophy, but is untested in the playoffs. Jose Theodore is one of the best in the league when he gets rolling and has the ability to steal a series on his own.

The two teams are evenly matched, and momentum may just be what decides this series. Boston in seven.

Philadelphia Flyers (3)
vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

These two teams battled it out until the last day of the season for the Atlantic Division title, and this series should be as close as that race.

The biggest question mark for the Flyers is in goal. Robert Esche has played most of the big games this year, but has struggled. That left the door open for Sean Burke, who has played well.

The Devils’ defense has been decimated by injuries this season — Scott Stevens has been out most of the year with post concussion syndrome.

Whichever team can stay healthy and survive what should be a long series will come out on top. New Jersey in seven.

Toronto Maple Leafs (4)
vs. Ottawa Senators (5)

The Battle of Ontario will be renewed for the fourth time in five years. However, both teams are very different now than they were back then.

Each team made significant moves at the deadline to bolster their lineups in hopes of a Stanley Cup run. The Leafs acquisition of Brian Leetch has made their defense the best it’s been in years. Ottawa is one of the most skilled teams in the league, but still lacks the toughness and grit needed to win in the playoffs.

Again, goaltending will be huge in this series. If Ed Belfour stays healthy, the Leafs have an automatic advantage over whoever the Sens have between the pipes. The Leafs also have a huge psychological advantage after Saturday’s 6-0 win and the previous three playoff series wins. Toronto in five.

 

 

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