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THE NHL

Wild, Wild West Not a Place for Faint of Heart

April 03, 2001|ELLIOTT TEAFORD

Brian Burke, general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, looked like 100 miles of bad road Monday at Staples Center. Nervously pacing outside his team's dressing room--tie askew, hair a depressed shade of gray--he had the wear and tear of the Stanley Cup playoff race written all over him.

In a few hours, his team was to face the scalding Kings and try to maintain its tenuous hold on a Western Conference playoff spot.

Clearly, these haven't been easy days and nights for Burke or the four other general managers whose teams are locked in the NHL's most compelling playoff fight in recent seasons.

Five teams are brawling for four spots. Four teams will be headed to the postseason next week. One will be headed to the golf course.

Win and survive. Lose and go home. What could be more simple?

"In the East, it's really only a two-team race," Burke said. "With a couple of wins, Toronto will open up some space on Boston and Carolina. Out here in the West, it's a zoo."

The Western Conference's top four spots are all but locked up. The Colorado Avalanche will be No. 1-seeded team, the Detroit Red Wings No. 2, the Dallas Stars No. 3 and the St. Louis Blues No. 4. The next four still are a mystery today.

The Kings vaulted from ninth to seventh with their 3-1 victory Monday against Burke's fading Canucks.

Of the five teams still in contention, the Canucks appear to be the most vulnerable. They now have only one victory in their last 15 games, which includes a devastating 2-1 loss in the final minute Sunday against the Mighty Ducks. In the postgame words of Vancouver winger Todd Bertuzzi that day, "We choked."

What's more, Vancouver's top two scorers, Andrew Cassels and Markus Naslund, are sidelined for the final week because of injuries. Daniel Sedin's feeble back acted up again after the Duck game and he couldn't play Monday.

Vancouver's top line Monday was comprised of Bertuzzi, Harold Druken and Peter Schaefer, which certainly didn't have the Kings quaking in their skates.

The Phoenix Coyotes, now ninth and out of the playoffs after Monday's games, have miles to skate before shedding their "Choking Dogs" reputation. They pinned a 3-1 loss Saturday on the Sharks, but are a pedestrian 3-4-2-1 in their last 10 going into tonight's game against the Kings at America West Arena.

The Sharks, who moved into a fifth-place tie with the Edmonton Oilers after a 4-2 victory over the expansion Minnesota Wild, have yet to fully capitalize on the March 5 acquisition of sniper Teemu Selanne from the Ducks. The Sharks' participation in the playoffs is no longer the foregone conclusion it was early last month.

The Oilers, buoyed by the superb goaltending of Tommy Salo, seem to be the most secure team of the five in contention. But they haven't clinched anything yet and lost Monday at Colorado, 5-3.

And that brings us to the Kings, whose late surge has been the result of steady goaltending by Felix Potvin and a keen attention being paid to both ends of the ice.

Defensive play, which includes goaltending, always is critical down the stretch and in the postseason. Only Edmonton's Salo has been on a par lately with Potvin, who is 12-4-4 after Monday's victory since Vancouver traded him to the Kings for future considerations Feb. 15.

"I don't know how much better we could have been in the last stretch of games," King Coach Andy Murray said. "We would love to have the Edmonton game [a 7-0 loss March 21] back. We would love to have the Anaheim game [a 3-3 tie March 24] back. We would love to have avoided taking a penalty in the San Jose game [which led to a power-play goal for the Sharks in a 2-2 tie March 27]. That cost us a win there."

Still, the Kings now are in position to close the deal. Barring a meltdown during a season-ending trip beginning tonight at Phoenix, and continuing Thursday at Vancouver and Saturday at Calgary, the Kings are finishing faster than anyone else.

"I always believed we were still in it," said Murray, referring to the Kings' seven-point deficit from a playoff spot March 2. "The whole time, we were saying, 'Let's stay close and make sure we're playing meaningful games at the end of the year.' I feel we've kept ourselves in the hunt."

Soon enough, a reporter asked Murray if he felt the pressure of having to rally his team into the postseason. Murray responded by telling a story about coaching Canada in the 1997 World Championships.

Moments before his team took the ice for the gold-medal game, a Canadian hockey official reminded Murray of the $1.5-million prize awarded to the winner. Suddenly, all Murray could think of was the skates, sticks and pucks $1.5 million could provide to youth hockey teams all over Canada.

"We're ready to go on the ice and Bob Nicholson comes wandering down the hallway," said Murray, speaking of the president of the Canadian Hockey Assn. "He says, 'Andy, we win this game and $1.5 million goes to Canadian hockey programs.' "

Now that's pressure.

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