Monday, April 05, 2004

The Quest Begins, on the Eastern trail!

Sixteen hockey clubs remain, their players having lived this moment in their boyhood days, the chance to score the winning goal in a Stanley Cup final game. It’s your goal that takes your team to the top, your shot that everyone remembers, your name on the Stanley Cup. Yes its one shot that can win the game, but it takes an entire team effort to get you to that point. Which team will step up this year? We begin the journey on the ice on Wednesday. We begin our journey on HockeyNation in the East!

The Battle of Ontario, it’s been a nasty bar room brawl at times, on others it features end to end action worthy of the golden days of the NHL. These two teams have developed a rather healthy dislike for each other, and the fact they keep running into each other in the playoffs just breeds more and more contempt. Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre the battle is joined once again.

The Leafs feature the grey beards of the NHL, many think of this as the last chance for this crew to have a shot, indeed the team has been put together this year with the belief that this is their shot. With the likes of Brian Leetch and Ron Francis added to an already veteran squad the faithful of the ACC must believe that the Hockey Gods are on their side. Even with the likes of Sundin, Nieuwendyk and Robers, Pat Quinn is portraying his squad as the underdogs in the series. His players picking up the tone, suggesting that the Senators we’re picked to win it all, the Leafs just trying to claw their way to a Cup. This despite some pretty convincing wins by the Leafs in the regular season.

But for all his bluster, Quinn may not be too far off the mark. The Senators who should have challenged for the overall lead in the NHL stumbled a few times this season, thus why they finished fifth in a very tight Eastern Division. But ponder for a moment the high octane line up that John Muckler has given Jacques Martin every night. Daniel Alfredsson, Peter Bondra, Martin Havlat, the goal scoring potential is just awesome. On the D line, is there a better first four than Redden, Phillips, Chara and deVries? You set up that wall on your blue line and see how many pass through on the way to the net. And in the nets there’s Patrick Lalime, who admittedly has struggled at times this year, but has an awful lot to prove. The weight of the series will be on his shoulders, Sens fans holding their breath as the series gets ready to begin; will he be ready to play after his minor knee injury? Will he be focused on the task at hand? Lalime played a major role two years ago in the Sens playoff run, expect him to build on those past experiences and soothe the shattered nerves of the Sens faithful.

His counterpart in the Leaf’s net is probably one of the best in the league today, Eddie Belfour is the Leaf’s ace, and he has the power to steal games for his team. But as goes Ed, so will go the Leafs, if his nagging injuries flare up in the first round and he’s sidelined for any length of time, the atmosphere of the ACC will resemble that of a funeral parlor when a favorite uncle or aunt has passed away. He’s the Leaf’s strength and their possible weakness. An awful lot is riding on Belfour’s troublesome back.

The Leafs know all about injuries, the most recent one possibly the most devastating, Owen Nolan the snake bit Leaf who now sits on the sidelines hoping against hope to somehow rehabilitate his knee in time to help out.

The Battle begins Thursday; expect a long drawn out and thoroughly entertaining affair. But at the end of the series, most likely game six or even game seven, it will be the SENATORS moving on. Destiny awaits them, Destiny will not be denied at the hands of the Leaf nation.

The oldest rivalries are the most intense, many an amazing hockey moment has come during a Boston and Montreal playoff game. And while these two teams may not be quite as loaded with stars as their storied predecessors, they still will put on a great show. Boston surprised many hockey fans this year with their rapid rise to the upper reaches of the NHL East, led by Joe Thornton’s scoring touch and Andrew Raycroft’s goaltending magic, this team has been a tough one to beat this year. At the start of the season everyone considered goaltending to be the biggest weakness the B’s had, no one is talking much about a deficiency at the position anymore.

Montreal returns to the playoffs giving their faithful fans something to celebrate this year. Bob Gainey has done a remarkable job of turning around a drifting franchise, Claude Julien responding to the vote of confidence issued at the start of the season, watched as his team responded well to his teachings. The Canadiens have been the feel good story of the East this year, a team that even found cheering from centers that traditionally wouldn’t dare salute the bleu, blanc et rouge. Jose Theodore tossed aside the turmoil of his personal life to remain a steady force in the Habs net, Captain Saku Koivu remained graceful under the unrelenting pressure of the Montreal fans and media, Sheldon Souray has just returned from what many thought was a season ending injury, and while still playing a bit tentatively he’s ready to make his contribution. Mike Riberio who has become a scoring machine with the Habs will be looking to get in the groove, the practice dust up with team mate Koivu a distant memory on the good ship Habitant. Add to that the additions by Gainey at the trading deadline and the Habs should be feeling good.

In the end this may be the one series where goaltending plays the largest role. Will Raycroft continue his amazing run with a solid playoff, or will the always cool Theodore hold the line and lead his team off to the next round. In the end, the veteran confidence of Theodore will rule the day. The Habs have won 22 of the 29 previous playoff matches these two teams have had, the most recent series two years ago went to Montreal. History will repeat itself again starting Wednesday night! Six games later MONTREAL will move on.

They’re close enough to be neighbors, and in some instances they may not actually live too far from each other. But on the ice they're bitter rivals, the FLYERS and the DEVILS the tri state area will split down the middle to support their crew, and like a good Mob war this one could get nasty. The Flyers have had their problems with the Devils the last few years, but Ken Hitchcock feels those days are in the past. He expects a tough hard fought series for both teams, one which may rest on which teams goaltending holds up. If that is the case the edge is on the side of the Devils, Martin Brodeur is one of the best in the league and gives his Devils much confidence as they head into game one. On the Philadelphia side of the ice will be Robert Esche, which came as a bit of a surprise announcement to many observers, but simply put the Flyers believe he’s earned his way to a playoff start. Sean Burke will be backing him up and should the Flyers and/or Esche struggle expect to see him in the nets fast. Keith Primeau and Jeremy Roenick have returned to the Flyer’s lineup so the offensive potential of Philly is obvious. The Devils not known for loading up the net will rely more on a defensive approach. They have one question mark on their bench, will Scott Stevens return for the playoffs, not much has been said about his condition, but it seems unlikely that he will make an appearance any time soon.

New Jersey is the defending Cup champion, and they’ll have a chance to defend their title just a little bit longer. It’s Brodeur over Esche/Burke as the DEVILS win this in six, possibly even in five.

The final match up in the EAST is an interesting study in how the league has evolved over the last few years. Tampa Bay seemed to sneak up and win the Eastern title this year, most fans unaware of their lineup and expecting them to tumble at any time. But a funny thing happened on the way to the playoffs, nobody told the Bolts. Led by Martin St. Louis, Tampa just kept winning. Nikolai Khabibulan, occasionally chided for poor play by his coach, managed to hold the fort most of the time and steadied the Lightning along the way. Vincent Lecavalier also suffered the barbs of Coach John Tortorella, but he remains one of the most dangerous players on the Lightning lineup and could come into his own this playoff round.

The Islanders have gone from the gates of NHL hell to the door of the Stanley Cup playoffs. A few years ago they were largely considered one of the laughing stocks of the NHL, but a bit of patience, some interesting managerial moves and a solid work ethic have moved them into the playoffs. Led by Adrian Aucoin’s solid blue line work and Mariusz Czerkawski’s scoring touch, the Islanders are putting the bad jokes behind them. The always enigmatic Alexei Yashin continues to test the patience of his coaches, team mates and fans, but when he puts his mind to it he can make a huge difference. Yashin, who recently spent time on the fourth line of the Islanders, seems to be back in a bit of a groove making some key contributions in the last few games. Rick DiPietro has provided the Islanders with dependable goaltending and can expect to be tested frequently in this series. Of the four Eastern first round match ups, this one could provide what could be called an upset possibility. If the Islanders play to their best potential they could give the Lightning a run for their money, Tampa Bay stumbled a bit during the final weeks of the season and showed that they can be beaten, despite their lofty finish. In the end it most likely will be TAMPA BAY, but don’t be surprised if the Islanders turn the tables and steal a series from the favored Bolts.

The rundown again:

OTTAWA over the Leafs in six or seven
MONTREAL surprises the Bruins in six
NEW JERSEY sends the Flyers packing in six maybe even in five
TAMPA BAY outlasts the Islanders in seven (possible upset special)

Tomorrow the Wild Wild West!

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