Sunday, April 4, 2004
Updated: April 5, 8:45 PM ET
No tournament like the Stanley Cup playoffs
By John Buccigross
Special to ESPN.com
Here we go -- the time when we come alive. There is no pressure like Stanley Cup pressure, and this postseason will be one of the best in a long time. There is no clear-cut favorite. Almost every game will be close. There will be heroes and goats. And in the end, one team will live a moment that will stay with them for a lifetime.
Predicting this unpredictable pressure cooker is insane. Impossible. But it makes already meaningful games that much more special. Like you, I'm in a playoff pool. I've picked my two goalies, 10 forwards and four defensemen. The first step to winning is having your players get out of the first round. If the following predictions come true, I'm on my way.
I was born a few blocks from the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh (it will always be the Civic Arena to me), and if I win my playoff pool, I'll use the money to buy two Pittsburgh Penguins season tickets.
SHOT OF THE WEEK
Every week, we will present an NHL photo and I'll provide a caption. E-mail me your suggestions (include your name and hometown/state) and next week we will use the best ones and provide a new photo.
The Bruins' Sergei Samsonov and Jiri Slegr:
"I would like to dedicate this goal to Mr. Miyagi, who taught me the power of the Crane!"
-- Mark Hutson
"How big was that fish?"
-- Kyle Larkin, Holbrook, N.Y.
"Don't shoot!!! We surrender!!! Spare us, take Raycroft, he's a goalie!!!!"
-- Adam Wilkey, Enfield, Conn.
"When I say NO, you say MAH! NO! MAH! NO! MAH!"
-- Josh, Tempe, Ariz.
"Sergei, if we can nail this last lift, we'll win the men's pairs competition!"
-- Jen Struss, Denver
"Barry once had a mullet THIS BIG!"
-- Jeff, Roxbury, N.J.
"Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance!"
-- Matthew Bassett, Ottawa
"No, Sergei, I can't lower my arms either. When will they heed our requests for NO STARCH!"
-- Russ Henson
Detroit captain Steve Yzerman and the Presidents' Trophy for the most points in the regular season:
"Do me a favor. FedEx this to Dominik Hasek. Thanks, Dude."
What makes the East so difficult to predict is that all eight teams have the ability win their opening-round series.
Tampa Bay vs. New York Islanders
The Islanders are so unpredictable. They have the fewest road wins of all 16 playoff teams, but only Detroit has more home wins. Nassau is an awesome playoff rink. The Lightning needs to win their first two home games. If Tampa Bay doesn't handle the pressure of expecting to win -- and that is a real possibility -- this could be the Islanders' series. But I'll play it safe and take the Bolts. Tampa Bay in seven.
Boston vs. Montreal
These two teams are dead even. Both had 41 wins, good goaltending, scored about the same number of goals and gave up about the same. The Bruins are a better team than they were when they lost to Montreal two years ago -- better goalie, better defensemen, and deeper forwards. The Canadiens have stumbled a bit down the stretch, but they have an experienced goalie, better faceoff men and Joe Thornton's injury going for them. The Bruins led the league in road wins, which means they have experience and heart. But I'll take the Habs. Montreal in six.
Philadelphia vs. New Jersey
I have a hunch Scott Stevens is gonna show up in this series. The Flyers did not play well on the road this year while the Devils did. Goaltending is everything, and though the Devils don't seem to have the mojo they had last spring, I'll take Martin Brodeur over the Flyers' goalies. Devils in seven.
Toronto vs. Ottawa
The shorter, the better for Toronto. The Leafs need Ed Belfour to stay healthy. That's what makes taking Toronto risky, but I'm taking them anyway. A classy team, laden with future Hall of Famers, so easy to hate the last couple of years, now so likable. Toronto in seven.
Not quite the heavyweight matchups of the East, yet just as unpredictable. If there were a fantasy draft among NHL GMs, who do you think would be the top three goalies chosen? Marty Turco, Evgeni Nabokov and Tomas Vokoun? That's what makes the West impossible to predict. Still, we sled on.
Detroit vs. Nashville
Nashville always plays Detroit well. The Preds are fast and nasty, but their defensemen are not, so the Wings should be able to operate down low, especially on the power play. The key for the Wings is winning the first two games, which might fill the Preds with doubt. Nashville is no Anaheim; the Ducks were bigger, more experienced, great on faceoffs, and their goalie had a much better year than Vokoun did. Detroit in five.
San Jose vs. St. Louis
St. Louis has been playing better and very hard down the stretch. But I like San Jose's speed, goaltending and large defensemen. These games should be close as neither team scores a lot. San Jose in seven.
Vancouver vs. Calgary
This will be a hard-fought war. Vancouver has more experience, and that should be the factor. Dan Cloutier is playing with a certain calm right now, and if he keeps that up, the Canucks should be OK. And Geoff Sanderson is skating like he's fueled by Jolt Cola. He's been flying! Canucks in six.
Colorado vs. Dallas
Dallas played well down the stretch and Colorado did not. Paul Kariya turned his ankle badly in the Avs' last game against Nashville on Sunday. The Avs are in trouble. Their best players really have to show up. Dallas is big, experienced and playing its best hockey of the year. Stars in six.
Chitty Chitty Cheechoo. Cheechoo and Chongoo. Chee-wiz. With a name like Jonathan Cheechoo, one has nickname options. For now, the boys of San Jose call him "Cheech." I caught up with Jonathan -- as one does most Western Conference hockey players -- on the way to the airport.
No. 1: What kind of name is Cheechoo?
Cheechoo: It's Cree. I come from a native reserve. My tribe is called Moose Cree Nation: http://www.moosecree.com/index.html
Jonathan grew up in Moose Factory, Ontario, on an island in the Moose River approximately 13 miles south of the southern tip of James Bay, about 550 miles north of Toronto. He is the first member of the Moose Cree First Nation to reach the NHL.
No. 2: Describe how your life as a kid differed from a kid growing up in Tiffin, Ohio.
Cheechoo: It's a lot colder up there. But as far as what kids do, it wasn't much different. I did have a backyard rink. It was in service from November through April. I didn't play in any kind of league until I was 14 when I moved to Timmins, Ontario. My dad is a minister and my mom is a school teacher.
There are about 300 Cheechoos in Moose Factory, which has just 3,000 residents and no paved roads.
No. 3: What the oddest thing that's happened to you?
Cheechoo: I had a rattlesnake rattle at me while golfing. I sacrificed the Titleist and got out of there.
Jonathan turns 24 on July 15. Barry Melrose turns 48 that same day.
No. 4: You scored more than three times as many goals as last year. How come?
Cheechoo: I'm getting more ice time and being put out there in different situations. I've always scored goals at every level growing up, especially on the backyard rink.
When Cheechoo was 12, he wrote a paper in school that stated he wanted to play for the Sharks when he grew up.
No. 5: How much has your skating improved from last year?
Cheechoo: I think I got an extra step from last year. Every summer for the past three or four summers, I've been working on my skating trying to get an extra step here or there. I think it all adds up.
Cheech was a second-round pick in 1998.
No. 6: What exercise would you recommend to people, young or older, to increase your speed on the ice?
Cheechoo: I do a lot of 10-20 yard sprints on dry land. Just trying to get my feet going as fast as I can. I do tons of sprinting in the summer. Foot speed drills are the most important exercise.
Jonathan's favorite food is moose meat, a.k.a. "Bullwinkle Burgers."
No. 7: What's the biggest reason for the Sharks' success this season?
Cheechoo: Everybody is close and works for each other. We have good team speed and get in there on the forecheck. We can wear teams down.
No. 8: Stick? Skates? Helmet?
Cheechoo: Orange Easton Synergy. Bauer Vapor 20's. CCM.
Someone needs an equipment deal. Shouldn't be a problem after 28 goals.
OK, there's seven this week. The envelope, please. No one watches more NHL games than me. I am the King of the Hockey World. Bow down to all my hockey knowledge and me. Come join me on my planet, Bleem, and worship our noble creator Loob. He instills in me the proper faculties to make the following assertions. Amen.
The Big Three
Hart Trophy: Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning
Scoring champ who is a great defensive forward, clutch, and an elite special teams player. What more do you want? He doesn't take dumb penalties. He plays with energy and passion and plays like someone who isn't financially set. Oh, yeah, he isn't. His contract is up after this year. St. Louis played every game this year.
Norris Trophy: Scott Niedermayer, New Jersey Devils
I give it to Niedermayer over Zdeno Chara by a hair. With Scott Stevens out, Brian Rafalski hurt and surrounded by rookies on the blue line, No. 27 donned the "C" and led the Devils to a 100-point season. He plays almost 26 minutes a game, carries the puck like few others, and plays and skates with a grace that is an advertisement for all that is beautiful and thrilling about hockey.
Vezina Trophy: Andrew Raycroft, Boston Bruins
I don't think Roberto Luongo should win this award. He'll win plenty when the Panthers are good. I feel it comes down to Brodeur, Belfour, Raycroft, Turco, and Nabokov. Miikka Kiprusoff just didn't play in enough games and didn't even see 1,000 shots this year (Luongo saw 2,443). Of those five above, Raycroft had the highest save percentage and his team won its division predominantly because of him. He's my pick. But if you say Brodeur has done it before and deserves a close call based on his body of work, I'm OK with that.
Jack Adams Award: John Tortorella, Tampa Bay Lightning
No brainer here. This man has molded the young players via high demands, and implemented the newcomers into this team by giving them well-defined roles. And he won the difficult Eastern Conference.
Calder Trophy: Andrew Raycroft, Boston Bruins
If the season were 20 games longer, Michael Ryder might have won it. Ryder has a Cam Neely-like release.
Lady Byng Trophy: Brett Hull, Detroit Red Wings
Just 12 PIMS in 81 games. He plays the game cleanly, with skill and smarts. Plus, I'd love to hear his acceptance speech.
Frank J. Selke Trophy: Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning
The league leader in intercepted passes. If he's on the ice, there is a good chance he will score and the other team won't.
In response to Ken Wright's e-mail regarding a recent mullet-counting expedition wherein the 16th mullet was a woman -- that is what my sister fondly refers to as a "femullet" (pronounced "fee-mullet").
God, I love Bill Dance.
You are to the NHL on ESPN what Bill Dance is to bass fishing, and you always "put the lotion in the basket."
OK, here is one. If you like Coldplay, go get some stuff by a band called Keane -- as in Mike Keane. Keane is Tom Chaplin (vocals), Richard Hughes (drums) and Tim Rice-Oxley (piano). Tom, Richard and Tim grew up in Battle, East Sussex, England, and still live and rehearse there.
I was also wondering where the music recommendations and references are this year! I remember last season you would often list some new indie bands in your articles for people to check out. You also had a really good article on U2's "The Joshua Tree."
I got invited down to Key Largo about eight or nine years ago by a friend whose family owns a funeral home, so they're kind of well-to-do and they keep their yacht in the same docking club/yacht area as Bill Wirtz's yacht. Let me tell you something: Wirtz's yacht is huge. It had the Blackhawks logo on it and everything. We kept having a few cold ones and we wanted to write "Let's Go Red Wings" in chalk on the pavement in front of his dock. I just think it's funny that a guy can keep a beautiful yacht that is worth millions down in Key Largo, with the logo of the worst team in hockey, maybe one of the worst in sports, plastered on the side, and he thinks that's a good idea. But he thinks it is a bad idea to pass up all those advertising dollars by refusing to put his team on television, let alone increase his fan base and sell out the building. Oh well, bad owner = bad team. It's a formula that has been proven over the years in all of professional sports.
Some quick hockey news from Sweden: Håkan Loob's Färjestad defeated Kent Manderville's and Corey "I'm also on that stamp" Hirsch's Timrå four games to one and advanced to the finals. Manderville has signed a new one-year contract with Timrå, but it didn't sound like Hirsch is going to stay. Färjestad will face Fredrik Olausson's HV71, who defeated last year's champions Frölunda four games to two in the semis.
John Buccigross is the host of NHL 2Night, which airs on ESPN2. His e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.