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A Hurricane Is Coming Through

October 07, 2002|LONNIE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last season, only seven points separated the top six teams in the Eastern Conference and Carolina, which wouldn't have made the playoffs in the West, ended up in the Stanley Cup finals.

Parity? Maybe. A soft conference? Definitely.

In any case, the East is up for grabs again with Philadelphia, Ottawa, the New York Rangers and the Hurricanes leading the way.

The Flyers, who have not won a Stanley Cup in 27 years, are loaded with talent and have a proven coach in Ken Hitchcock, who takes over after nearly seven seasons behind the Dallas Stars' bench. Philadelphia General Manager Bobby Clarke can only hope that Hitchcock is ready to add to a resume that already includes five division titles, two Western Conference titles and one Stanley Cup title.

Ottawa also should be much improved with a strong group of young but experienced players in Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and Wade Redden. The Senators, however, have a history of falling short in the playoffs under Coach Jacques Martin, who will be on the hot seat.

Another team not to be counted out is the Rangers, who hired a new coach in Bryan Trottier, who will work with acquisitions Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis along with returning veterans Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter.

And then there's Carolina, which is led by Coach Paul Maurice, who in his eighth season holds the longest current tenure among NHL coaches. The Hurricanes' run to the finals last season makes them the team to beat, especially because they re-signed captain Ron Francis and defenseman Brett Hedican to play with up-and-coming youngsters Josef Vasicek, Jaroslav Svoboda and Erik Cole.

Capsules in predicted order of finish:

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1. CAROLINA

Coach: Paul Maurice, eighth season.

2001-02 record: 35-26-16-5, 91 points, first in Southeast Division, third in conference.

Player to watch: Forward Jeff O'Neill, who recorded his third consecutive 60-point season in 2001-02 with 64 points (31 goals, 33 assists).

Outlook: Ron Francis is beginning his 22nd NHL season and he's still one of the best set-up players in the game. Vasicek and Svoboda gained a great deal of experience in last season's playoffs and should only be better this season. Throw in skilled forwards such as Rod Brind'Amour, Erik Cole and O'Neill along with a strong defense and goaltending tandem of Arturs Irbe and Kevin Weekes, and it's easy to see why the Hurricanes are considered favorites.

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2. PHILADELPHIA

Coach: Ken Hitchcock, first season.

2001-02 record: 42-27-10-3, 97 points, first in Atlantic Division, second in conference.

Player to watch: Forward Simon Gagne, who led the Flyers in goals with 33, including seven game-winners.

Outlook: Hitchcock's defense-first style should work well with the Flyers, who have underachieved in the playoffs the last few seasons. It's put up or shut up time for high-scoring forward Jeremy Roenick, who along with Gagne, Mark Recchi, Keith Primeau and John LeClair should carry the team's scoring load. The big question about the Flyers will be goalie Roman Cechmanek, who is expected to take over now that Brian Boucher has been traded.

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3. OTTAWA

Coach: Jacques Martin, eighth season.

2001-02 record: 39-27-9-7, 94 points, third in Northeast Division, seventh in conference.

Player to watch: Goaltender Patrick Lalime, who appeared in a career-high 61 games last season and was outstanding in the playoffs with a 1.39 goals-against average.

Outlook: The obstruction crackdown should benefit the Senators, who have all the pieces in place to make a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup. Up front, veteran Daniel Alfredsson should get plenty of scoring help from Marian Hossa, Radek Bonk and Martin Havlat. But the key to the Senators will be their defense, which is headed by Wade Redden, who has a habit of being on the ice whenever Ottawa scores.

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4. N.Y. RANGERS

Coach: Bryan Trottier, first season.

2001-02 record: 36-38-4-4, 80 points, fourth in Atlantic Division, 11th in conference.

Player to watch: Forward Eric Lindros, who led the Rangers in scoring last season with 73 points and in plus-minus with plus-19.

Outlook: The main reason the Rangers failed to make the playoffs last season was their weak special teams. Trottier, who coached Colorado's power play the last couple of seasons, should help along with high-scoring winger Pavel Bure, who will sit out the first few weeks of the season because of a knee injury. If Mike Richter can hold up in goal and Brian Leetch can regain his consistency, the Rangers will be in the hunt.

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5. MONTREAL

Coach: Michel Therrien, third season.

2001-02 record: 36-31-12-3, 87 points, fourth in Northeast Division, eighth in conference.

Player to watch: Forward Saku Koivu, who sat out 79 games before making an inspirational return from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma last season.

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