Playoff Fever

by Chris Maugeri

As the regular season comes to a close, the NHL playoffs begin to heat up. The championship is up for grabs, as the top 16 teams in the league battle it out for the right to place their names on Lord Stanleyís Cup. The champions will tally 16 victories in four, 7-game series against some of the most feared NHL opponents. Which teams have what it takes to celebrate win number 16 and secure the most coveted trophy in all of sports?

Letís start out in the east, which sees the New Jersey Devils as the favorites to emerge from this conference and defend their Stanley Cup. If youíre looking for a weakness on this team, you wonít find it. Comprising arguably the best line in hockey, Patrik Elias, Jason Arnott, and Petr Sykora are an absolute nightmare to play against. In addition, Alexander Mogilny has been on a tear the entire season. Mogilny and Sergei Brylin, centered by Scott Gomez, make up an excellent second line, which gives the Devils an extremely balanced attack. On defense, Scott Stevens just seems to get better with age. Brian Rafalski and Scott Niedermayer add a great deal of offense to a team that already has two 40-goal scorers in its lineup. At the most important position in hockey, is one of the best in the business. Goaltender Martin Brodeur hopes to lead New Jersey to its second straight Stanley Cup, as he turned in yet another stellar season.

A 30-year old rookie goaltender by the name of Roman Chechmanek is what the Philadelphia Flyers have been riding all season. Chechmanek has come out of nowhere to take the league by storm and is the main reason why Philadelphia is one of the top teams in the conference. On the offensive side, the Flyers are a very well balanced team. Injured throughout most of the regular season, John Leclair is just now getting back into action, attempting to regain his scoring touch that made him one of the best forwards in the game the past few seasons. With Keith Primeau having a career year, veteran playmaker Mark Recchi at the top of his game, and 21-year old Simon Gagne having emerged as one of the best young players in the league, the Flyers offense is primed and ready for the playoffs.

Heading over to the west, itís hard to argue that the Colorado Avalanche will fail in becoming Western Conference champs this year. Fifty-goal scorer and team captain Joe Sakic leads the charge for Colorado, but is not alone. Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, and Chris Drury are three players with unlimited offensive ability, and it doesnít stop there. Defenseman, Rob Blake, acquired earlier this year from Los Angeles, and long-time Bruins great, Ray Bourque, contribute to the scoring on a nightly basis. The number of all-stars on this team is truly baffling, however, there is still one more. Possibly the greatest goaltender ever, Patrick Roy has been simply dominating once again this year. The weapons this team possesses, both offensively and defensively, is scary. If an opposing team is not at the peak of its game, a 4-game sweep could be in order. Look out Western Conference Ė just try not to embarrass yourself.

As long as Steve Yzerman is still around, the Detroit Red Wings will always be Cup contenders. At 36 years old, Yzerman has always been one of the NHLís top playoff performers and the leadership he brings to this team makes him one the most respected players in the game. Another player who excels in the playoffs is Brendan Shanahan, as he has scored some big goals throughout his entire career. Perhaps the most talented offensive defenseman the last couple of years has been all-star Niklas Lidstrom. An absolute terror on the power play, Lidstrom has put up some very impressive numbers over his career. Several months ago, when the season opened up, goaltender Chris Osgood struggled to keep pucks out of the net. In a word, he was awful. Manny Legace proved to be huge as he saved this team early on by taking over the goaltending duties for Osgood and the Red Wings. As the season progressed, Osgood slowly regained his old form and now appears to be back on track, just in time for the playoff push.

This is what it all comes down to, as the best teams in the league go head to head with very little room for error. One mistake could end a teamís season in a heartbeat. The best opening round series will most likely be the one which sees the Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers renewing their rivalry. The Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Washington Capitals should also be a good battle, but then again any game featuring Mario Lemieux has the potential to be entertaining. While upsets are always a possibility, there are two teams who rise above the rest. Before moving to New Jersey, The Devils were known as the Colorado Rockies. After losing the Rockies to New Jersey, it took almost two decades for the fans of Colorado to see hockey in their hometown once again. The continued failure of the Quebec Nordiques forced the franchise to relocate. The Colorado Avalanche was the new team that was formed through the Quebec organization. With the unlimited offense and suffocating defense that the Devils and Avalanche possess, something has to give. Does it really get any better than a Martin Brodeur versus Patrick Roy match-up? If these two teams are to meet in the finals, expect for one of the greatest Stanley Cup Finals in the history of the NHL to take place.