Fourteen NHL teams just saw their season end a few weeks sooner than they would have liked. By far the biggest disappointment in the Western Conference, the San Jose Sharks, were expected to compete for a division championship, but after failing to ever get off the ground, they will miss the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

With a team of high priced stars, the Rangers were thought by many to be a contender for the Cup, even though they had not made the postseason in five years. Even after the mid-season acquisitions of Mike Dunham, Anson Carter and Alexei Kovalev, they fell short extending their streak to six years.

The biggest disappointment this season, has been the Carolina Hurricanes. After surprising the hockey world last spring by reaching the Finals, they were supposed to run away with the Southeast Division, the weakest in the league. Instead, the ‘Canes finished with the worst record in the league. But for the 16 remaining teams, the season starts over this week when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins.

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Ottawa Senators vs. No. 8 New York Islanders – after early playoff departures in recent years, the Sens are eager to prove that they are a championship caliber team. Marian Hossa leads the top scoring attack in the East, which also includes Daniel Alfredsson, Radek Bonk and Martin Havlat. Led by Zdeno Chara, their defense is outstanding, and Patrick Lalime had a great season in goal but will need to be up to the task in the playoffs. With the best record in the East, this season will be a failure if they don’t make the Finals.

The Islanders on the other hand, should be happy just to get into the playoffs. They were horrible prior to the return of Mike Peca from injury, and have struggled miserably since the trade deadline despite the inspired play of former Senator Alexei Yashin, who has been outstanding over the past six weeks. Their strong point lies in their defense, where the addition of Janne Niinimaa to Roman Hamrlik, the fragile Kenny Jonsson and workhorse Adrian Aucoin gives them a top-four defensive combination that can stand up against any offensive threat. Garth Snow has been streaky in goal since the departure of Chris Osgood, but if he can play like he did during Osgood’s injury and Yashin continues his torrid scoring, the Isles just might settle the dispute once and for all who got the better end of the Yashin for Chara and Spezza trade.

No. 2 New Jersey Devils vs. No. 7 Boston Bruins – even though they didn’t win the conference, the Devils are the team to beat in the East. Martin Brodeur might finally take home the Vezina Trophy he has somehow been unable to win to this point. Scott Stevens is the prototypical playoff defenseman. His size, strength, timely scoring and killer instinct punishes the top players on opposing teams. If Brodeur can keep them in games, the offense will muster up enough to win games.

The Bruins were the best team for the first two months of the season, but since then they faltered miserably, and were only helped by a lack of depth in the conference. Joe Thornton had another great season, and Glen Murray has become one of the most dangerous scorers over the past several seasons. But acquiring Jeff Hackett did little to solve their goalie issues, and in the playoffs, strong goaltending usually wins out, and this series should be no different.

No. 3 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 6 Washington Capitals – For the first time since 1996 and just the second time in their history, the Lightning are in the playoffs. They have few experienced players, but Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis give them two top scorers. All-Star goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has the potential to steal a series. He struggled early but has heated up at the perfect time and was Player of the Month for March.

The Caps on the other hand, have the experience to pull off the upset. Led by Olaf Kolzig in goal, they made the Finals in 1998. They held Tampa’s position in the standings for a while this season, but switching positions should only hurt them in later rounds. When Jaromir Jagr gets going he is still the most dangerous player in hockey, and while this is a very different team, with Jagr and Peter Bondra leading the way, the Caps will likely be the lowest seeded team in the East to win a series.

No. 4 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 5 Toronto Maple Leafs – last year the Leafs had home ice advantage in the first round, and it made the difference in game seven. In what will be a heated series between two very talented teams, home ice could be the difference once again, only this time their opponent will host the seventh game if it goes that far. Toronto looks to have all of the pieces in place to make a run deep into the playoffs, but they will need to battle through injuries to some key players to get past the Flyers. With Jeremy Roenick leading the charge, John LeClair healthy and Tony Amonte on board, the Flyers have the power to match up against the Leafs. Their biggest concern lies in goal, where Roman Cechmanek must prove he is a playoff performer. If he plays well, the Flyers could win the East and might have the best shot to defeat the stronger teams out West.

Western Conference

No. 1 Dallas Stars vs. No. 8 Edmonton Oilers – Marty Turco supplanted Ed Belfour in goal for Dallas this season, and all he did was post the lowest goals against average in the modern hockey era – a ridiculous 1.72. If not for an injury down the stretch he would be a lock for the Vezina Trophy. Jere Lehtenin is the top defensive forward in the league, and Mike Modano leads a dangerous scoring attack, but the absence of powerful forward Bill Guerin will hurt in later rounds.

The Oilers have solid goaltending in Tommy Salo, but he alone won’t carry his team, and seems to still be suffering slightly from the meltdown in the Olympics fourteen months ago. Trading Anson Carter and Janne Niinimaa will help the Oilers in the future, but not in this year’s playoffs, where against the winner of the Western Conference, they need all the help they can get. The one thing the Oilers have on their side is experience against Dallas in the playoffs, but as long as Turco’s health isn’t an issue, the Stars will take this series with relative ease.

No. 2 Detroit Red Wings vs. No. 7 Anaheim Mighty Ducks – Like in the East, the favorite to win the conference is not the top seed. The Wings head into the playoffs on fire, and everything is running smoothly for them to make another run at the Cup. They have offensive firepower in Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan, and always seem to get key goals from role players. Nick Lidstrom anchors a great defense that recently added Mattieu Schneider, and Curtis Joseph is hungry to win his first Cup.

The Ducks had a strong season led by Paul Kariya, and J.S. Giguere had a monster season in goal. They will be motivated since they haven’t been to the postseason in years. They are an unproven team, however, and their opponent is the toughest team in the playoffs. Unless Cujo has a meltdown in goal, the series is just a warm up for Detroit.

No. 3 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 6 Minnesota Wild – Unfortunately for Minnesota, Colorado’s late run vaulted them past Vancouver into the third spot in the conference, giving them a much tougher first round matchup. Peter Forsberg is a likely candidate for MVP, Milan Hedjuk had an outstanding season, and Joe Sakic is the best second-line center in hockey. Rob Blake and Adam Foote lead a stellar defense, and if all else fails, there’s always Patrick Roy in the net, the all-time leader in nearly every statistical category in both the playoffs and regular season.

The Wild play a disciplined defense, but even so it will be difficult to stop the top two lines of Colorado. Dwayne Roloson was great in goal all season, Marian Gaborik is emerging as a top NHL player, and this team should be ready to contend for the Cup in a couple of years, an amazing feat for a team in just its third year of existence. But in order t

o win, they first have to experience losing in the playoffs.

No. 4 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 5 St. Louis Blues – When there is a league-wide debate as to who deserves the Hart Trophy more – Markus Naslund or Todd Bertuzzi – you know your team is in great shape for the playoffs. Led by a lethal scoring combination and motivated by last year’s first round loss, the Canucks have high expectations for this year. Their defense is solid, and Dan Cloutier is an emotional goalie who should be very tough to beat if a groin injury doesn’t cause problems.

Al MacInnis and rookie Barret Jackman stepped up in the year-long absence of Chris Pronger, but with Pronger back on the ice the Blues will be that much better. Pavol Demitra and Keith Tkachuk lead a strong, balanced scoring attack that should be able to counter Bertuzzi and Naslund. With Chris Osgood in goal, they thought they had the playoff goalie they’ve been searching for, but he has struggled nearly all season and has been hot and cold since his arrival. If he can return to form, the Blues can go deep. If not, they won’t get past Vancouver.

Swidler can be reached at

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