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Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Breaking down the contenders

By Adam Proteau
The Hockey News

If there's one thing the NHL's 2003-04 campaign will be remembered for other than broken necks, seven-second TV delays and the rhetoric-bricked road to a labor war, it will be the thrilling end -- one of the best in league history -- to the regular season.

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Undeniably, hockey types and typists alike have spent so much time, ink and bandwidth crafting antidotes for the league's gaggle of disorders, we've all but forsaken the buzz the game still can produce. Truth is, despite the 'he-said/he-said-the-exact-opposite-of-what-the-first-he-said' soap opera starring Bob Goodenow and Gary Bettman (and how appropriate is it that the initials of the commissioner and the union head are the opposite of one another?), the NHL is steaming toward a postseason wherein, at least in our estimation, no fewer than 12 of the 16 playoff-bound teams could wind up as champion.

So, in the spirit of the league's parity -- or is it in the spirit of fence-sitting? -- Screen Shots is semi-proud to present two reasons to believe in each of those 12 contenders, and one sticking point for each that may persuade you to let the bandwagon pass on by (this week, the Eastern Conference; next week, the West):

Boston Bruins
  • Why they'll win:
    1. Andrew Raycroft. Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff has been pegged as this year's J-S Giguere, but Raycroft is in a better position to make a run equal to the one the Ducks goalie made last season. Patient, prepared and fronted by an underrated blueline corps, the 23-year-old rookie could be following Patrick Roy's blueprint to superstardom.

    2. Joe Thornton. We don't often agree with Don Cherry, but Kingston's Kooky King had it right when he labeled Thornton as the best two-way player in the NHL. The playoffs are all about grit, determination and perseverance -- three attributes that apply just as easily to Boston's captain.

  • Why they won't:
    The coach. We're not saying Mike Sullivan hasn't done a great job this year, but this is an organization that changes coaches like Robert Blake changes defense attorneys. The Bruins' revolving door behind the bench means Sullivan may squeeze the white board a bit tighter than his colleagues, and as such force him into tactical errors.

    New Jersey Devils
  • Why they'll win:
    Martin Brodeur
    Brodeur
    1. Marty B. When his career is over, he will be the sole owner of numerous goaltending records. He makes the stealing of playoff series look easy. He benefits from playing in the NHL's tightest system since Alan Eagleson's old player benefits program. And you're going to bet against Martin Brodeur? Some people never learn.

    2. Pat B. He's not the type of guy you'd invite over for tea and crumpets. When he's got his game face on, he's crusty on a level that makes Bette Davis look like Strawberry Shortcake. But so what? Burns has proven two things in his career: (1) he makes teams better; and (2) his act has a shelf life of about 3-4 years. This is year No. 2 with Lou's crew, so Burns is in his prime.

  • Why they won't:
    Post-Scott Stevens Syndrome. The Devils provide the ideal example of a team that has lost its identity. When concussion symptoms pushed Stevens to the sidelines, New Jersey had an 20-9-9-1 record. Since then? 21-15-3-1. Doesn't exactly appear to be a team that's ready for another ring-fitting.

    Ottawa Senators
  • Why they'll win:
    1. The 'or else' factor. There are a few other teams this can apply to, but none more so than the Sens, who have suffered more letdowns than the folks who bankrolled Chevy Chase's career. The players are well-aware an early exit will result in a housecleaning of the highest order; if they like each other as much as they say they do, their on-ice performance will reflect it.

    2. The Roger factor. It's been less than a year since beloved coach Roger Neilson passed away, but his legacy lives large in the minds of the Senators, who would love nothing better than to dedicate this year's Stanley Cup to him.

  • Why they won't:
    Patrick Lalime
    Lalime
    Shaky goaltending. It's immensely entertaining to see a team professing its confidence in a goalie when his play doesn't warrant it, a la Roman Cechmanek and the Flyers last year. This year's Senators fit the profile nicely, with Patrick Lalime settling into the Jekyll and Hyde act as the season progressed. If Ottawa sags after a few soft goals, owner Eugene Melnyk will have a different position to improve upon next season.

    Philadelphia Flyers
  • Why they'll win:
    1. Bobby Clarke's moves. No, not Clarke's attempted duck-and-run past Flyers security to get at Senators coach Jacques Martin. We're talking about the acquisitions of Alex Zhamnov, Danny Markov and Sean Burke, additions that put the Flyers neck-and-neck with Toronto as the East's deepest team. If Keith Primeau returns from post-concussion symptoms, look out.

    2. Ken Hitchcock. The mere mention of his name makes Brett Hull break into hives, but everyone's favorite Captain Kangaroo impersonator makes up for his dependence on tabletop-style hockey by winning. Hey, any time you can get bon vivants such as Hull and Jeremy Roenick to buy into your message, you're doing something right.

  • Why they won't:
    The never-ending goalie shuffle. Yeah, we know Robert Esche has been anointed as Philadelphia's No. 1. But after the first softie Esche allows, the frothy Philadelphia media will make their request for the insertion of Burke heard loud and clear. On the bright side, Clarke can dust off his "He's our starter, no matter what" speech from last season -- or from any of his seasons as GM, for that matter -- rather than starting from scratch.

    Tampa Bay Lightning
  • Why they'll win:
    1. Their 45 wins this season have been evenly split between home and the road. That's what's called "staying on message."

    2. John Tortorella. Is there a bench boss who has done more and received less credit than Tortorella? (Besides Andy Murray, we mean.) He has the stones to verbally slap around his superstars when need be; and more importantly, he has the Lightning believing in and playing for each other.

  • Why they won't:
    The double-edged sword also known as their remarkable lack of injuries. The Lightning have lost fewer than 30 man-games to injury this year, but what happens when the inevitable postseason injury train rolls into town? Do the resulting line changes toss the team into disarray?

    Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Why they'll win:
    Joe Nieuwendyk
    Nieuwendyk
    1. Joe Nieuwendyk's "fertilizer." That was the way Leafs coach Pat Quinn categorized Nieuwendyk's influence on previously underachieving forwards Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov. And after injuries forced the three-time Cup champion out of the entire post-season last year, you have to know he's aching to provide nourishment for all of Toronto's acreage in the games that count the most.

    2. See: Why Tampa Bay won't win. In the same way the Lightning's lack of injuries could prove an obstacle in the injury-addled post-season, the Leafs' ever-busy ER ward could help them overcome the absence of key warriors down the stretch.

  • Why they won't: The Usual Suspects. That would be the Maple Leaf defense, which, while certainly improved with the additions of Brian Leetch and Calle Johansson, can still look as grisly as Nick Nolte's infamous mug shot. Specifically, the pairing of Johansson and Tomas Kaberle has been dreadful for Toronto; if the alternative to giving such a non-physical tandem big minutes is more ice time for Aki Berg and Karel Pilar, we would hope there are more alternatives. Ed Belfour's back may be rickety, but unless defenseman Ken Klee returns from injury, the Blue and White's blueline could again be the franchise's Achilles heel.

    E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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