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EASTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW

Canada Looks to Senators for Leaders

October 06, 2003|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

The Stanley Cup hopes of an entire hockey-mad nation -- excluding some myopic Toronto Maple Leaf fans -- rest on the shoulders of the Ottawa Senators.

The Senators, the NHL's top team last season with 52 wins and 113 points, inspired many Canadians to dream the Cup would reside north of the border for the first time since 1993.

A seven-game loss to the New Jersey Devils in the conference finals shattered that reverie, but the Senators return with a formidable team that has a better read on how to survive the playoff grind.

For the defending Cup champion Devils, the script will probably be the same as always. Playing before thousands of empty seats at Continental Airlines Arena, they'll muddle through the early months, refocus on defense while Coach Pat Burns grumbles, then march through the playoffs with speed, physical play and Martin Brodeur's clutch goaltending. It often isn't pretty, but that formula has won them three Cup championships in nine seasons.

The Maple Leafs aren't as fast, prolific or deep as Ottawa. Nor are they as solid on defense as New Jersey. They're an uneven mix, difficult to label and even more difficult to imagine as a Cup contender. New General Manager John Ferguson Jr. (namesake son of the former Montreal tough guy) has his work cut out.

Blaming goalie Roman Cechmanek for their playoff exit last spring, the Flyers traded him to the Kings for a second-round draft pick. They may regret it.

Jeff Hackett is capable but hardly exceptional, and playoff success boils down to goaltending. And goaltending. And, of course, goaltending.

Here's a novel concept: The Rangers appear to be playoff-bound after six consecutive misses. They're not cohesive enough to take a run at the top tier, but they could be a spoiler.

1. OTTAWA SENATORS

Coach: Jacques Martin, eighth season.

2002-03 record: 52-21-8-1, 113 points, first in Northeast, conference and NHL.

Player to watch: Jason Spezza. He's dynamic and tough to check and is likely to play on one of the top two lines. A budding star.

Outlook: No more excuses for this talented team, which lost a seven-game conference final to New Jersey last spring. They've got superb goaltending in Patrick Lalime (2.16 goals-against average, .911 save percentage), a deep offense that produced 263 goals, third in the NHL, a power play that ranked second and penalty killing that ranked 10th. They're solid on the right side with Marian Hossa (45 goals, 80 points) and Daniel Alfredsson (27 goals, 79 points) and strong defensively up the middle with Todd White, Radek Bonk and Bryan Smolinski. Defenseman Wade Redden (10 goals, 45 points) is creative offensively.

2. NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Coach: Pat Burns, second season.

2002-03 record: 46-20-10-6, 108 points, first in Atlantic, second in conference.

Player to watch: Jeff Friesen. He became a clutch player in the playoffs, using his size and skill while buying into Burns' selfless system.

Outlook: The Stanley Cup champions have hardly changed, besides losing veteran Ken Daneyko to retirement. They still have speed up front, forwards who are well-schooled defensively and the muscle and intensity to be effective when things get physical. If they make a mistake, goalie Martin Brodeur (2.02 goals-against average, .914 save percentage) usually bails them out. John Madden is becoming a premier defensive center. Defenseman Scott Stevens remains the team's heart, playing with a desire that hasn't faded at 39. They won't have to expend energy finishing first overall.

3. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Coach: John Tortorella, third season.

2002-03 record: 36-25-16-5, 93 points, first in Southeast, third in conference

Player to watch: Nikolai Khabibulin. Management was unhappy with his rocky playoff performances in goal last spring. If he falters early, look for him to be traded and replaced by John Grahame.

Outlook: Although they lost top scorer Vaclav Prospal as a free agent to the Mighty Ducks, they still have enough to finish atop the weak Southeast division. Vincent Lecavalier (33 goals, 78 points) is still improving, and Brad Richards (17 goals, 74 points) opened many eyes last season. So did pint-sized right wing Martin St. Louis (33 goals, 70 points). Winger Cory Stillman was a good acquisition, but the defense isn't physical or especially mobile. Not quite ready to play with the big boys, but they've made progress and appear to be on the rise.

4. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Coach: Pat Quinn, fifth season.

2002-03 record: 44-28-7-3, 98 points, second in Northeast, fifth in conference.

Player to watch: Ed Belfour. He had a superb season (2.26 goals-against average, .922 save percentage) while facing nearly 30 shots a game. A mediocre defense offers little promise that his task will be easier, and he can't afford to let up.

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