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Red Wings Excel; Sharks Lurking

April 21, 2006|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

Minimizing obstruction and speeding up the game were supposed to spell doom for the Detroit Red Wings.

Chris Chelios, 44, would surely need a lasso to stop opponents. Steve Yzerman, nearly 41, would be breathing fumes as foes sped past him. Kris Draper, 34, Mathieu Schneider, 36, and Nicklas Lidstrom, 35, had too many miles on them to adapt to a swifter, younger league.

They might be dinosaurs, but they were good enough to win the Presidents' Trophy for having the NHL's best record.

The Red Wings' 122-point season was inflated by a schedule that gave them eight games each against Columbus, Chicago and St. Louis. However, they made an impressive adjustment to the new rules and overcame the loss of defenseman Jiri Fischer to a heart condition. The Dallas Stars also adapted well to the new offense-friendly rules, winning the Pacific Division and earning the No. 2 seeding while breaking some promising youngsters into their lineup.

The Nashville Predators earned the No. 4 seeding with fine goaltending, small but swift forwards and mobile defense. But without goalie Tomas Vokoun, out of the lineup because of a blood disorder, their prospects are uncertain. The San Jose Sharks ended the season as one of the NHL's hottest teams thanks to scoring champion Joe Thornton (29 goals, 125 points) and goal-scoring leader Jonathan Cheechoo, who had 56 goals. This could be the year they fulfill their promise.

The first-round matchups:

* Who: No. 1 Detroit (58-16-8) vs. No. 8 Edmonton (41-28-13)

* Head to head: Detroit 2-0-2

* What you need to know: The Red Wings had eight players who scored at least 20 goals, the NHL's top power play (22.1%) and third-best penalty-killing unit (85.5%). They had the third-best team goals-against average, 2.51, but the playoffs are a different kind of pressure. Manny Legace, who had a 2.19 goals-against average in 51 games, has never been a starter in the postseason. Chris Osgood won one Cup as a backup and one as a starter but doesn't inspire confidence. The Oilers are fast and scrappy but are likely to be overwhelmed by the Red Wings' skill and depth.

* Who: No. 3 Calgary (46-25-11) vs. No. 6 Ducks (43-27-12)

* Head to head: 2-2.

* What you need to know: Miikka Kiprusoff led the NHL with a 2.07 goals-against average and the Flames had the lowest team average, 2.35. That compensated for an offense that ranked 28th. The Flames are physical and will bump Scott Niedermayer at every chance. Goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere isn't as sharp as when he carried the Ducks to the 2003 Stanley Cup finals, but he had some good moments late in the season. Niedermayer was the NHL's top defenseman, and Teemu Selanne (40 goals, 90 points) and Andy McDonald (34 goals, 85 points) were among the top 20 scorers.

* Who: No. 2 Dallas (53-23-6) vs. No. 7 Colorado (43-30-9)

* Head to head: Dallas, 3-1.

* What you need to know: The Stars had a slow start but won the Pacific Division by 13 points over San Jose. Their power play ranked only 20th, at 17.7%, but their penalty killing ranked 10th, at 83.7%. They play best when they're physical but must stay out of the penalty box. Mike Modano (27 goals, 77 points) and Jason Arnott (32 goals, 76 points) are still their mainstays. Colorado flailed through injuries and unreliable goaltending. The Avalanche counts on defensemen Rob Blake and John-Michael Liles to contribute offensively, but neither did much late in the season.

* Who: No. 4 Nashville (49-25-8) vs. No. 5 San Jose (44-27-11)

* Head to head: Nashville, 2-0-2.

* What you need to know: It's now clear why Paul Kariya signed with Nashville as a free agent last summer. He had a terrific season, with 31 goals and 85 points, as the scrappy Predators compiled a league-best 32-8-1 home record. Chris Mason filled in admirably after Vokoun developed a blood disorder and even scored a goal, but Mason is untested under playoff pressure. The Sharks made the deal of the decade by acquiring Thornton from Boston for Wayne Primeau, Marco Sturm and Brad Stuart. They're deep up the middle and in goal and ended the season impressively.

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