Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Quest for the Cup, the Western Path

One game, one shift it can make all the difference between winning and losing. Ask the Edmonton Oilers, they know how important one game can be, the difference between moving on or going home for the season. Maybe it was a November game, or one in December, January or February, regardless one game got away, one game they should have had, one game that made that spectacular run in March all for naught. One game, one shift, one goal, you never know when the moment comes that can change it all.

Eight teams in the West know that today, Wednesday night one shift can make the difference between hoisting Stanley up, or watching someone else make the skate with the Cup. One team that has a bit of experience with that victory skate is Detroit and they are rewarded for their first place finish with a visit from the Nashville Predators. This marks Nashville’s first appearance in the Stanley Cup Derby. On paper it should be a coast for the Red Wings, by far one of the most talented teams in the second season. Yzerman, Hull, Chelios, they are all one day Hall of Famers who know how to win. Hatcher, Shanahan, Lidtsrom, a trio of all stars that prove just how deep this line up goes. There are the newest Wings, picking up the torch and showing the future is strong in Detroit. The only question in the Motor City as we wait for game one is how will Manny Legace fare in his first playoff start for the Wings, Legace who has only pulled eleven minutes of playoff action gets the start for Curtis Joseph who is still trying to get back into game shape.

For the Predators who stumbled badly down the stretch, the playoffs are the season. While they normally play the Wings tough in the regular season, there should not be any upset happening here. Tomas Voukoun will have to be at his best to withstand the oncoming onslaught of Red Wings, fourteen of the Preds have never been to a Stanley Cup game as a participant, how they handle the pressure will dictate how long the series will go. Sergei Zholtok, Steve Sullivan and Scott Walker will have to be the leaders for the hard working if over matched Preds. Detroit has won four of the last eight Stanley Cup finals they’ve been involved in, while it’s a long way to winning the fifth of nine attempts, they won’t bow out in the first round. Wednesday night at 7 at the Joe the Wings begin their latest chase, the first round goes to DETROIT in five, maybe four.

The Blues and the Sharks, number 7 against number 2. Most would give the nod to the Sharks who played well for most of the season recovering nicely from the reconstruction of the team only two years along. But St. Louis is no ordinary 7th place team, they are making their 25th consecutive playoff appearance, a symbol of the character of this hard working team. Keith Tkachuk, Dallas Drake, Pavel Demitra, Doug Weight and Chris Pronger have all gone far in past playoffs, having clawed their way back into this years affair after a horrid season, they will be wanting to prove that there is life still in the old bones in Blue. Injuries took their toll on the Blues all season long, losing an anchor such as Al McInnis and the promising talent of Barret Jackman, both two holes they haven’t completely filled even now. Regardless, with a second chance to recapture the spirit of where they thought they were at in September, the Blues will be full value for the series.

San Jose has had a remarkable year, written off by most observers as in a rebuilding phase after sending Captain Owen Nolan to Toronto, the Sharks have pleasantly surprised their fans in the Bay area. With a strong regular season which found them only five points behind league leading Detroit. The Sharks were full value for their second place finish in the West. Patrick Marleau, Nils Ekman, Jonathon Cheechoo and Alyn McCauley all provide the scoring punch on the Sharks, Vinnie Damphouse and Mike Ricci showing a veteran influence on a rather young team. Evgeni Nabokov had a great season in the nets for the Sharks, giving San Jose some stability behind the blue line and the confidence to go on the attack. In a series that could go down as dependant on the goaltenders the edge could actually be with San Jose. St. Louis has never really felt much confidence in Chris Osgood and he hasn’t given them much to be confident about at times. This is the series that Osgood has to step up and prove to his team mates that he can be the last line of defense. If Nabokov out duels him it’s a big plus for the Sharks. In the 2000 playoffs the eighth place Sharks upset the first place Blues to win their first round series. In 2004 the positions are reversed somewhat, but the result may well be the same. The surprising Sharks will disappoint the Blues, this series will go the full seven games. SAN JOSE finishing the Blues off, victorious on their home ice.

COLORADO had a terrible March, free falling through the standings tumbling to fourth overall, expectations of challenging the Wings for First in the league long since dismissed. It’s all about survival now, saving a season that has gone terribly wrong. Early season favorites to win the Cup based on the acquisition of Paul Kariya and Temmu Selanne at a ridiculously low price, they never seemed to reach their potential in Denver. Selanne struggled on the ice all season, he and Coach Tony Granato seemingly on different pages of the hockey manual. Kariya injured for almost half the season, never matched his points totals from his days in Anaheim and as we head into the first round he’s injured again, return date unknown. Yet this is still a rather loaded lineup, the always reliable Joe Sakic has much playoff experience, Rob Blake and Adam Foote anchor the always tough Avalanche defense. Peter Forsberg, Alex Tanguay and Milan Hejduk all are proven goal scorers who seem to live for the playoffs. The only question, and the frequent one this playoff season is what about the nets? GM Pierre Lacroix chose not to replace David Aebischer at the trading deadline, giving him the nod as the guy to carry the team through the playoffs, Lacroix picked up Tommi Salo from the Oilers at the deadline, but it’s widely expected that the first round is Aebischer’s to win or lose. Untested in playoff action, how he handles the pressure will go a long way to deciding the fate of the Avs.

Over in the Dallas net Marty Turco has become the Wall in Dallas, well rested after his four game end of season suspension Turco has been one of the main reasons the Stars finished in the fifth spot overall. On many occasions this year, Turco has made the key stop that saves the game or kept his team in the hunt, a GAA of only 1.98 testimony to his value. Starting the season in a terrible way, it wasn’t until the second half that the Stars began to turn it on. Streaking up the standings since January, they enter the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league. Injuries will have a major impact on how they travel down the path to Stanley, by the final week of the season the Stars were like a walking wounded brigade. Jason Arnott, Sergei Zubov, Jere Lehtinen and Stu Barnes all have troubles that could play a factor in their availability. Bill Guerin is a key to the Stars success as well, if he can keep his regular season pace going in the playoff round this will be a dandy match up. The intangible is confidence and right now the Stars seem to have more of it than the Avs. The slide in March is not a good omen for Tony Granato and his team, something just isn’t working right now in Denver. Seven games will show if they can recapture the positive feeling from training camp, back then the Avs fans were planning the parade route, they can put the plans on the shelf for a year. The STARS in seven.

Canadian hockey fans were thrilled to death with the way all six teams made the charge to the playoffs, disappointed a bit when Edmonton fell by the wayside but filled with national pride at the fate of the other five. Thus it’s rather sad that two of them will be gone after just one round. Calgary and Vancouver used to hate each other not too long ago, the regular season and playoff battles between the two some of the great rivalries of the late eighties and early nineties. Then came the dark days for Calgary fans the flames slide to the deep reaches of the standings, the playoffs but a dream for those heading home from the Saddledome the first week of every April. Seven years have gone by between playoff appearances, but who should they match up with as they make their reappearance, none other than their old nemesis the Vancouver Canucks.

The Flames success is due to a remarkable work ethic instilled by coach Darryl Sutter, since his arrival in Calgary from San Jose, Sutter has made this team believe in itself. Jarome Iginla plays with an intensity many thought would eventually surface, the last few years were frustrating for Iginla who must have been feeling the weight of the franchise on his shoulders. His scoring dash this year indicative of his new found spirit on the ice, filling the role of team leader and on ice general he’s made the Flames a team to be feared on the attack. At the other end of the rink has been the remarkable Mikka Kiprusoff, he has been the story in Calgary, a third string cast off from San Jose he’s taken Calgary by storm, some nights single handedly preserving the Flames playoff aspirations with his play. If he closes the door on the Canucks as he has all season, the Flames could be the team to watch, if they stick to Sutter’s script this will be a memorable series.

For Vancouver it’s been a roller coaster all season, but never more so than the month of March. A team that was hard to figure for most of the year, hot for a week or two and then terribly cold, scoring slumps, goaltending chaos and defensive miscues all seemed to appear at different times making this an unsettling season at GM Place. Then came that infamous night in March, when Todd Bertuzzi's brutal hit from behind, sent Steve Moore to the ice and subsequently to the hospital, the wheels had officially fallen off the Canuck’s wagon. Bertuzzi would quickly be banished from further play for this year and possibly beyond, the team reeling from the loss of their power forward, went into a terrible slump. The always fickle Canuck fan quickly scrambled off the bandwagon, bemoaning the fate of the team many believed was destined for the Stanley Cup this year.

Slowly Marc Crawford and Brian Burke began the process of rebranding the team, Martin Rucincsky arrived from New York but never clicked on the first line, Crawford would look for the dependable Matt Cooke to add some jump to the starting line and since his arrival with Naslund and Morrison the Canucks have been back in business. Geoff Sanderson arrived at the deadline as well and has provided some veteran calmness in addition to some scoring punch. By rattling off six straight wins heading into the playoffs, the Canucks have announced that the reports of their demise are greatly exaggerated. Vancouver is playing a much different game now than they were a short month ago, much faster and more intense in the offensive zone they are starting to make the opportunities that they were giving away earlier this year. While a major loss like that of Bertuzzi would normally be the death rattle of a team’s hopes, they seem to have been able to turn that negative into a team bonding move. As a team the last three weeks have seen the Canucks more cohesive on the attack and more dependable in their own end. Dan Cloutier who lives under a microscope in Vancouver has found his game the last few weeks of the season and that’s a good thing, for back up Johan Hedberg has struggled in his appearances.

Trevor Linden has stepped up even more in his leadership role on the team, helping to take some of the pressure off of the embattled Naslund, a player who has sounded weary and played with a heavy weight on his shoulders. The return of Ed Jovanovski was the shot in the arm this team desperately needed post Bertuzzi, it’s no coincidence the confidence of the entire squad seemed to get a boost with Jovanovski back in the line up. The fans are solidly back in their corner in Vancouver, GM Place will continue it’s tradition of sold out hockey, the scalpers who three weeks ago were taking a bath on tickets, have the jump of a lottery winner claiming the big prize.

Perhaps outside of the Toronto/Ottawa series this will be the most physical and the most intense. Both teams hoping to prove they have their game on track for a long run. It’s the long awaited opportunity for Dan Cloutier to exorcise the goaltender ghosts of GM place, if he’s in the zone he’ll take his team far. Seven games will provide us with some great hockey, but at the end of Game Seven it will be VANCOUVER moving on. With a second wind now in their sails, the Canucks are ready to get back to the journey they had planned in September.

Recapping the West:

DETROIT over Nashville in five maybe even four!
SAN JOSE defeats the Blues in seven.
DALLAS sends the Av's golfing after game seven
VANCOUVER edges the hard working Flames in a thrilling seven games.

16 teams start out, but only one winner will survive. The puck drops Wednesday night in Boston, sit back and enjoy the ride!

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