May 10, 2002

Between the Pipes with Annie Aydinian

The emergence of fuzzy-faced athletes, Slap Shot viewings, Canadian nationalism, and Labatt's and Molson commercials can only mean it's

Stanley Cup playoff time again. This season has been…interesting, by most standards. Five of the Original Six teams made the playoffs, a number of good teams from the West didn't earn spots for the playoffs, and horrible teams from the East suddenly found themselves in playoff contention. The first round held much promise for teams like the Boston Bruins, the Philadelphia Flyers, the New York Islanders, and the Los Angeles Kings to regain long-forgotten glory, but they ultimately found themselves left out in the cold. Now, the East's favorites are out, and in the West anyone can go on. Here are my predictions and commentary on the conference semi-final series.

Western Conference

Undisputedly, the West has been the strongest conference in the league in recent years. The teams are brash and hard-checking, and they thrive on play along the boards. Relying on their physical play to produce goals, the four Western teams emphasize both size and strength. All four of the Western teams are legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup, which is more than can be said for their Eastern counterparts.

San Jose vs. Colorado (Series tied 2-2)

In the battle of two big physical teams, who will win? This result of this series could be a shocker, but most likely won't be. The Avalanche will probably advance yet again to the conference finals. I like the Sharks' gritty play and their willingness to take hits. All three of their lines can score, whereas the Avs at best have only two productive lines. Colorado's motivation is also a big question. The push to win last year in Ray Bourque's final season carried the Avs to their second Cup, but nothing powerful is behind their effort this season. Peter Forsberg's return to the team has been a huge addition for the Avs' offense, as he leads the playoffs in points. In the back, Patrick Roy is the best clutch goalie around. He has the most wins in hockey history, and everyone in the game knows that his season starts when playoffs begin. Even though defense wins games, Roy can't do it all by himself. Others besides Forsberg and Rob Blake will need to start producing in order for the Avs to advance, and they certainly can. Colorado in seven.

St. Louis vs. Detroit (Detroit leads series 3-1)

As much as I hate to say it, the Red Wings will live to see another round. Everyone will look back to game four as the turning point of the series, when a combination of stupid penalties and coaching decisions by the Blues handed the series to the Red Wings. Every time I looked away for a split second, it seemed Detroit had earned another one- or two-man advantage. Matching up the Blues' checking line to Wings' scoring line certainly did not help their offensive output, either. In a season game this would work fine, except now, in the playoffs, the Blues' top scoring line of Keith Tkachuk, Pavol Demitra, and Scott Mellanby is spending even more time off the ice than normal. The Wings boast too much talent, especially on defense, for the Blues to hamper themselves even further by not playing their scorers. After all, eight of those Detroit players will end up as Hall of Famers. Detroit in six.

Eastern Conference

The teams from the East play a wide open, crisp-passing, finesse game. In the past several years, however, the physicality of the game has negated the East's skill in the exhausting final round. Out of the past seven seasons, only twice has the Eastern Conference won Sir Stanley's Cup, and even then it was by the same team both times—New Jersey in 1995 and 2000. Only three of these teams might actually be seen as threats in the finals, if that many.

Toronto vs. Ottawa (Series tied 2-2)

The battle of Ontario might produce just as fierce a rivalry as the Maple Leafs-Canadiens rift that divides the country. The Senators have exceeded everyone's expectations by making it back to the second round for the first time since 1998. Too many things are going Ottawa's way for them not to win this series. The Senators play well at even-strength play, are great in the special teams, have a wall between the pipes, and have all the intangibles. Goalie Patrick Lalime broke the unbeaten streak record as a rookie in the 1996-1997 season and just set another record for consecutive shutouts in these playoffs. Additionally, the Maple Leafs have knocked the Senators out of the playoffs the past two years, and the Senators are looking to return the favor. It also doesn't hurt that the Maple Leafs' top scorer, Mats Sundin, is out with a broken wrist, and that the Leafs' constant whining has finally turned every ref in the league against them. Ottawa in seven.

Montreal vs. Carolina (Series tied 2-2)

This series is going to come down to goaltending. Habs goalie Jose Theodore was unstoppable against Boston, and if he regains his composure against the Hurricanes, will be so again. The Canadiens also possess the motivation to go all the way to the finals—just think: the comeback of forward Saku Koivu from cancer to win the Cup is a playoff story made in heaven. But so was the Hurricanes' demolition of the New Jersey Devils in the first round. This young squad, under the leadership of Ron Francis, can make magic again, if their goaltending doesn't let them down first. Montreal in six.