It's that magical time of year again, and I'm not talking about today's White Sox home opener. Many hockey fans are only just now waking up from their mid-winter hibernation, while others have been patiently watching and waiting for what most fans agree is some of the hardest-hitting, most intensely-played hockey of the year. Despite the warm spring weather and the wear and tear of an 82-game season, the NHL's top 16 teams never fail to get a second wind when they finally arrive within sight of the Stanley Cup.
When I first started following hockey in elementary school, the Eastern Conference play-off teams inspired fear in the hearts of western fans, and most people figured that someone from the east would end up on top. Then came the rise of the Detroit Red Wings, whose devastating scoring machine was delayed only briefly by the New Jersey Devils and the neutral zone trap. Then came the Colorado Avalanche and its tendency to make teams wish for Patrick Roy to be involved in some kind of tragic jumbotron accident. Next was Dallas, the team that angered northern purists with its sheer talent and the insult of bringing a cup that far south of the Mason-Dixon line.
This season every play-off team in the west has at least 91 points in the standings, and half of them have over 100. The western teams have the more potent offenses, which means that the winner in the east will have to hope for a hot goaltender. Martin Brodeur, Patrick Lalime, and Roman Cechmanek are the three most likely candidates to carry their teams, but only Brodeur has proven himself capable of winning a championship and has often carried the Devils on his back. Toronto's Eddie Belfour can always come alive in the play-offs, but he still lacks Brodeur's consistency.
Marty Turco and Curtis Joseph will ensure that Dallas and Detroit easily handle their first round opponents, but experience says that only one goalie in the west will truly frustrate the opposition. Patrick really struggled in the first half of the regular season, but, since the all-star break, Roy was able to force himself to concentrate and once more possesses the killer instinct that leaves most centers and wingers wondering just what they have to do to beat him. No one dominates opponents in the play-offs like Roy does, and he may not even have to if Alex Tanguy, Milan Hejduk, Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, and rookie sensation Steve Reinprecht continue to have the scoring touch. Despite placing fourth in the conference, Colorado will win the Stanley Cup this year, probably over New Jersey.
This year's play-offs certainly have their pleasant surprises and disappointments. Vancouver is finally a strong playoff contender again, thanks in part to Markus Naslund's breakout season, and large yet frighteningly agile Todd Bertuzzi's dominance on the wing. Defenceman Eddie Jovanovski has also come into his own and has set up 40 of the Canuck's goals.
Another welcome addition to the post-season fold is the Minnesota Wild. I first became aware of Marion Gaborik during the all-star break, where he showed the NHL's top players that he belonged alongside them. Minnesota has the clear advantage of being the only true no-name team in the playoffs, with Cliff Ronning being the only other player that people outside the state have heard of.
The big disappointments are the original six teams that have either missed the post-season or will likely disappear after the first round. The New York Rangers are still poised to flop once more, despite picking up Alexei Kovalev for next-to-nothing in the mid-season. It seems like all the money in the world has no positive effect whatsoever on this team.
Even the historic Montreal Canadians couldn't put together a contending squad. The NHL needs this team to be good, if only for nostalgic reasons. How José Theodore collapsed after such a strong performance last season is anybody's guess.
Then, of course, we have Chicago's home team. The Blackhawks had a pretty strong start this season but collapsed when it became apparent that Steve Sullivan, Kyle Calder, Theo Fleury, Eric Daze, and Alex Zhamnov were not enough to make this team competitive. Jocelyn Thibault also turned out not to be the superstar that Hawks fans thought he was.
And continuing with the theme of embarrassingly poor goaltending, we come to my own first love, the Boston Bruins. This team shocked the world when they began the season with the best record in hockey. Nobody had any idea how a team that had lost Byron Dafoe, Bill Guerin, and Kyle McLaren could possibly play as well as they did. Even Barry Melrose could see the inevitable collapse on the horizon. The Bruins waited too long to trade McLaren and couldn't get a decent player in return once it became obvious that Bruins were no longer dealing from a position of strength. Instead, Boston was left with Jeff Hacket and a defense that lacks the kind of depth Boston fans were hoping for. Sadly, head coach Robbie Ftorek was the scapegoat, and he is now out of a job. While this team still made the playoffs, they don't stand a chance against the likes of Ottawa, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.