YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Cup And At 'em

With Higher-Quality Teams Participating, Postseason Has Potential to Win Distinction


Back in the days when there were 21 NHL teams mucking and grinding in search of 16 Stanley Cup playoff slots, advancing to postseason play was no big deal. Winning records were not necessary. Eighty points pretty much put you over the top.

Not anymore.

The regular season actually means something nowadays, what with 14 of the league's 30 teams gone fishin' today.

Ask the Phoenix Coyotes, in particular, about the significance of the regular season. They won 35 games and compiled 90 points and failed to advance.

Unlike the league in the 1980s, before expansion swelled the ranks, there are no losers in the playoffs. Only winners have advanced--and some of them got left behind--which should make these playoffs memorable.

Any of three Western Conference teams--the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings--could make it to the finals and no one would be surprised.

The Eastern Conference isn't expected to be as competitive, with the New Jersey Devils a consensus favorite to return to the finals to defend their Stanley Cup title.

Here is the way the opening-round matchups shake out in the Western Conference:

The Rout--No. 1 Colorado vs. No. 8 Vancouver. The Avalanche had the league's best record with 118 points. The Canucks stumbled home with a 2-5-3 mark in their final 10 games, barely edging the Coyotes for the final slot in the West. Colorado takes this one in four quick games.

Goes to Form--No. 2 Detroit vs. No. 7 Kings. Give the Kings their due for rallying in the final six weeks behind goalie Felix Potvin and making it to the playoffs. Detroit's goaltending isn't as sharp as it should be, but the Red Wings are 17-0-2 in their last 19 games at Joe Louis Arena. And that should be enough of an advantage to win in five games.

Best Series--No. 3 Dallas vs. No. 6 Edmonton. The Stars struggle at times against teams with speed and the Oilers have loads of it. The Oilers play a skillful, attacking game, which will be difficult for the Stars to handle. The goaltending figures to be superb, with Ed Belfour in net for Dallas and Tommy Salo between the pipes for Edmonton. It's a tossup, but give Dallas the edge because it has been to the Cup final the last two years.

Upset Special--No. 4 St. Louis vs. No. 5 San Jose. Actually, it wouldn't be fair to call a Shark victory an upset. When San Jose, as the No. 8 team, knocked off No. 1 St. Louis last season, that was an upset. The Sharks are hot because of two recent additions. The Blues are not because their goaltending is merely average. Teemu Selanne has energized the Shark offense, which also will be bolstered by the return of center Vincent Damphousse from a dislocated shoulder. Give the edge to the Sharks.

The East shapes up this way:

The Rout--No. 1 New Jersey vs. No. 8 Carolina. The Devils were like a snake in the grass for most of the regular season. No one paid them any attention, but now they're ready to bite someone's ankle. That someone will be the Hurricanes, who closed with a rush to edge the Boston Bruins for the final spot in the East. The best matchup is in goal. New Jersey's Martin Brodeur led the league with 42 victories. Carolina's Arturs Irbe was fifth with 37. Still, the Devils will win in four games.

Goes to Form--No. 2 Ottawa vs. No. 7 Toronto. The battle of Ontario will be no contest. If the regular season had lasted another week or 10 days, the Maple Leafs probably would have been overtaken by Carolina and Boston. The Senators have too many weapons, among them goalie Patrick Lalime, to let this one end with an unpredictable result. Ottawa takes it in five.

Best Series--No. 4 Philadelphia vs. No. 5 Buffalo. This one has everything, including dueling Czech goaltenders Roman Cechmanek of the Flyers and Dominik Hasek of the Sabres. Cechmanek is a treat to watch. He has made a habit of knocking away shots with his head, looking like a soccer player nodding the ball out of harm's way. Hasek isn't human, of course. It's a tough call, but the Flyers have too much firepower.

Upset Special--No. 3 Washington vs. No. 6 Pittsburgh. Capital Coach Ron Wilson acknowledged his team's troubles with the Penguins earlier this season and there aren't many folks who would be surprised if his team lost a first-round series to Pittsburgh for the second consecutive year. A good deal will depend on how Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux fares if the series extends to six or seven games. Washington has a big edge in goal with Olaf Kolzig. Expect the Penguins to prevail, however.

Los Angeles Times Articles