The 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs begin tonight and, as always, the sport's unique culture will be on display. Players will measure their public comments carefully so as not to rile their opponents. In hockey, trash talking usually takes place on the ice, not through the media. Players will diligently try to disguise their injuries behind the closed doors of training rooms. Vials of ginseng extract will litter dressing room stalls. Carping coaches will jockey for the attention of the referees.
And, as always, the pace of play will make so many of those regular-season games seem like leisurely skates at Rockefeller Center.
The last four Cups have been won by Western Conference teams, the last of which went to Dallas after Brett Hull scored a controversial overtime goal well past midnight in the East to beat Buffalo. Riddled with injuries during the regular season, coach Ken Hitchcock's Stars go stumbling into the postseason winless in their last five games.
The Red Wings have won two of the last four Cups. If Sergei Fedorov awakens, they could make in three in five years.
The Avalanche perked up after acquiring Ray Bourque from Boston in March. As a future Hall of Fame defenseman who hopes to win his first Cup after playing 21 years in the league, Bourque will be viewed with more sentiment than most. He is the Ernie Banks of hockey.
But if the regular season is any indication, St. Louis is the logical favorite to win its first Cup. The Blues had the best record (51-20-11-1) during the season. They can roll out four quality lines, and they have the best tandem of defensemen in the league in Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis.
In the Eastern Conference, who knows? If the Flyers can survive Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek, block out the off-ice intrigue, and get a healthy Eric Lindros back by the second round, they may have as good a chance as any team to emerge from a mediocre pack.
New Jersey, which coughed up the top seed in the conference to the Flyers after finishing 9-14-2, must turn on the switch. The Devils have won one playoff series since capturing the Cup in 1995.
Washington was the league's best team for the second half of the season, and the Capitals' method can be as effective as it is dull. Besides, goalie Olaf Kolzig has regained the form that carried the Caps to the final two years ago.
Toronto is the most exciting team in the conference, but the most erratic among the contenders.
The balance of power is so tilted toward the Western Conference that two of the best series of the playoffs will take place in the second round, if form holds. Barring first-round upsets, the Blues will go against the Red Wings, and the Stars will face the Avalanche.
The survivor of the Eastern Conference may benefit from the Big Four in the West beating up one another. It may be the Eastern Conference team's only hope.
Here's a look at the first round, excluding the Flyers-Sabres series:
Season series: Pittsburgh, 3-1.
Since March 1: Washington, 12-5-2; Pittsburgh, 11-8-0.
At the risk of oversimplifying, this series could come down to one matchup: Olie the Goalie against Jaromir Jagr, the game's most potent offensive player.
The 6-foot-3 Kolzig was the talk of the nation's capital when he lugged Washington into the Cup finals two years ago. His play sagged and the Caps were decimated by injuries last season, when they didn't make the playoffs. But this time around, Kolzig enters the playoffs off his best regular season. He had 41 wins and a .916 save percentage. Chris Simon finally has emerged as the top-notch power forward many thought he'd become when the Flyers put him in the 1992 deal for Eric Lindros, scoring a team-high 29 goals this season. Adam Oates, a premier playmaker, has bought into coach Ron Wilson's defensive system so thoroughly that he's a candidate for the Selke Trophy, which goes to the league's top defensive forward. Peter Bondra is a bona fide sniper when healthy, and Sergei Gonchar and Calle Johansson lead an underrated group of defensemen.
Ignore their .500 season and seventh-place finish in the conference. The Penguins are a frightening first-round opponent because no skater can control a series like Jagr can when he's healthy. He won the scoring title (96 points) even though he missed 19 games this season, but he says his legs are still bothering him. Jagr struggled with a groin muscle pull last spring, yet helped the Pens eliminate the Devils in the first round and take Toronto down to the wire. Pittsburgh acquired goalie Ron Tugnutt from Ottawa for Tom Barrasso at the trade deadline. Tugnutt's playoff experience is limited, and he's never won a postseason series. So coach Herb Brooks will go to rookie Jean-Sebastien Aubin quickly if Tugnutt struggles.
Key matchup: Jagr will get his scoring chances. Can Kolzig stop him?
Prediction: Penguins in seven.
Season series: Ottawa, 3-1-1.
Since March 1: Toronto, 11-8-0; Ottawa, 10-8-1.
The intensity should be high in this series between rival Canadian cities.
The loss of mobile defenseman Bryan Berard with a terrible eye injury will be tough for the Leafs to overcome, but goalie Curtis Joseph gives any team a chance in the playoffs. Mats Sundin blends size and speed, and he experienced some playoff success for the first time last season. The Leafs have four players with 25 or more goals, including big-game winger Steve Thomas. Their emphasis on a transition game can be stressful for Joseph and a shallow group of defenders, but the Leafs are dangerous when they control the pace.
The Senators are rightfully proud they matched last year's 95-point season without superstar Alexei Yashin, who sat out because of a contract dispute, and despite a rash of key injuries that forced five regulars to miss more than 20 games each. They also got some bad news yesterday when they learned they might be without key defenseman Wayne Redden for the series because of a foot injury. Redden is effective on the power play and penalty-killing unit and probably would have been used against Sundin. Under Jacques Martin, the Senators are disciplined and well-drilled, and they were one of the few teams to have Toronto's number during the regular season. If Barrasso is on top of his game, this will be a long, tight series.
Key matchup: Sundin's line against Ottawa's quick, mobile defense.
Prediction: Maple Leafs in six.
Season series: New Jersey, 3-1.
Since March 1: New Jersey, 7-10-1; Florida, 9-8-2.
Either the Devils got bored, or they lost their way. Whatever, they hit a wall in mid-February that prompted general manager Lou Lamoriello to fire coach Robbie Ftorek and replace him with assistant Larry Robinson, and trade for moody sniper Alexander Mogilny and defenseman Vladimir Malakhov. The changes didn't serve to reignite the team. The Devils suffered first-round elimination last season after winning the Eastern Conference regular-season title the last two years. Claude Lemieux, who has won Cups with three different teams, including the Devils in '95, slumped the last two months of this season but is one of the game's greatest postseason performers. Patrik Elias and Jason Arnott have matured into quality forwards, and winger Scott Gomez will probably be voted rookie of the year. The talent is there for the Devils to reach the finals. But what's going on inside their heads?
For the Panthers, Pavel Bure scored a league-leading 58 goals in 73 games, but the Russian Rocket had only 10 shots and three goals in the four games against the Devils, and one of the goals was an empty-netter. Bure must have a big series for Florida to advance. Coach Terry Murray's Panthers are among the league's best in special teams and have two solid goalies in Mike Vernon and Trevor Kidd.
There will be an angry undercurrent to this series. Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer was suspended for 10 games after hitting the Panthers' Peter Worrell across the head with his stick. Niedermayer will return after Game 1 of this series.
Key matchup: With his speed, Niedermayer likely will be on the ice against Bure after returning from his suspension.
Prediction: Devils in six.
Eastern Conference champion: Toronto
Season series: St. Louis, 4-0-1.
Since March 1: St. Louis, 10-4-5; San Jose, 9-6-2.
Each of the last three seasons, the Blues have been eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion. Now, it appears they've upgraded themselves enough to join the Super Bowl champion Rams and make St. Louis the new Titletown.
The Blues acted quickly to fill their most pressing need when they acquired goalie Roman Turek, who backed up Ed Belfour for the defending champion Stars. Turek was a No. 1 goalie who only needed an opportunity, and he got it with St. Louis, leading all goalies with a 1.95 goals-against average and seven shutouts. His 43 wins ranked him second behind New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, and he started for the World all-stars in the NHL All-Star Game this season. The Blues, 30-8-7 since Jan. 1, are so well balanced that they should easily get through this series without leading scorer Pavol Demitra, who is recovering from a concussion. Eleven other Blues scored goals in double figures, including Pierre Turgeon (26), Michal Handzus (25) and Scott Young (24). Pronger is probably the best all-around defenseman in the league. He and MacInnis combined for 25 goals and 76 assists.
The Sharks are probably just a big-time goalie and some seasoning shy of becoming a legitimate Cup contender. They traded Vernon and went with Steve Shields in goal, and Shields was erratic, although he played some of his best games near season's end. Owen Nolan, long an enigma, had a superb season with 44 goals. Jeff Friesen, Vincent Damphousse and Niklas Sundstrom are dangerous forwards, but young talents Marco Sturm and Patrick Marleau sagged a bit.
Key matchup: Pronger against Nolan.
Prediction: Blues in five.
Season series: Dallas, 3-0-1.
Since March 1: Dallas, 9-6-4; Edmonton, 7-9-1.
The Stars will try to defend the Cup with the same desired mix of veterans and youth, along with the addition of defensemen Dave Manson and Sylvain Cote. With Ed Belfour in the nets and a deep defense led by Derian Hatcher and Sergei Zubov, the Stars were second in the league in fewest goals allowed. Zubov, out recently with an injured right knee, will be re-evaluated for Game 1. Among the many injured Stars this season was winger Jere Lehtinen, who played only seven games because of ankle problems. He is expected to be ready for the playoffs. Mike Modano may have had his best season from start to finish, and the Stars learned during last year's run to the Cup that they have the character to overcome their fragile physical status.
If speed and youthful enthusiasm account for much, the Oilers could throw a scare into the slower, older Stars. Tommy Salo may be the league's most underrated goalie. He had a .914 save percentage and a 2.33 goals-against average in 71 games. The cash-poor Oilers lack star power at forward, and they need Alexander Selivanov to play the way he did early in the season before he lagged so badly that the team nearly traded him. Quick, name Edmonton's leading goal-scorer. Didn't think so. That would be Ryan Smyth with 28.
Key matchup: Edmonton defenseman Roman Hamrlik against Modano.
Prediction: Stars in six.
Season series: Tied, 2-2.
Since March 1: Colorado, 14-2-1; Phoenix, 7-12-1.
Just when the Avs appeared to have a full head of steam entering the playoffs, they lost Peter Forsberg with a shoulder injury on the final weekend of the regular season. Forsberg, widely regarded as the most complete player in the game, is expected to be out for the first round and maybe beyond. Colorado's late-season surge coincided with the acquisition of the 39-year-old Bourque, whose career has been rejuvenated. The Avs also got Dave Andreychuk in March, a move that looks even smarter with Forsberg out. Milan Hejduk and Chris Drury are two of the most talented young forwards in the league, and a power play with Bourque and Sandis Ozolinsh at the points can be lethal. Safe to say, Patrick Roy knows his way around goal in the postseason.
The Coyotes got out of the bitter cold when they moved to Phoenix from Winnipeg, Manitoba, but they've never gotten past the first round of the playoffs. Their amazing 17-6-3 start to the season became a distant memory as Keith Tkachuk battled injuries, inconsistency, and a five-game suspension for slashing Chicago's Tony Amonte. Without Tkachuk alongside him much of the season - Tkachuk missed 31 games - Jeremy Roenick's production suffered. Both are ready for the playoffs.
Key matchup: Bourque against the Roenick line.
Prediction: Avalanche in five.
Season series: Tied, 2-2-1.
Since March 1: Detroit, 10-4-4; Los Angeles, 9-6-4.
The Red Wings' attempt to win a third consecutive Cup ended with a second-round loss to Colorado a year ago, and this deep, experienced team is clearly strong enough to recapture it. After a slow start, the Red Wings surged to challenge St. Louis for the best record before finishing second with 108 points. A ninth Stanley Cup championship would make coach Scotty Bowman the all-time leader. Brendan Shanahan led the Wings with 41 goals, and Steve Yzerman, a consummate leader, never seems to lose his zest for the game. Nicklas Lidstrom led the league's defensemen with 73 points, and Chris Chelios still needs to prove Detroit made the right move when they dealt for him last season.
The Kings haven't won a playoff round since Wayne Gretzky led them to the finals in 1993. This is only their second time in the playoffs since then. First-year coach Andy Murray, a former Flyers assistant coach, has done an outstanding job bringing the Kings back to respectability with an up-tempo system that rejuvenated Luc Robitaille, who led the team with 36 goals and 74 points. Late-season injuries to Zigmund Palffy, Rob Blake, Nelson Emerson and Bryan Smolinksi probably prevented a stronger finish, but only Smolinski (knee injury) will be sidelined for this series.
Key matchup: Los Angeles' speed against Detroit's aging defensemen.
Prediction: Red Wings in six.
Western Conference champion: St. Louis
Stanley Cup champion: St. Louis