Will Colorado reunite the Superman Line?
Sakic, Forsberg and Fleury probably aren't even afraid of kryptonite—"I don't think anyone can stop us when we're together," Fleury says—but first-year coach Bob Hartley, in a nod to the conventional playoff wisdom of balanced lines, will use them together at even strength only if the Avalanche needs a spark or a big goal. So Forsberg will center Claude Lemieux and rookie Chris Drury, and Sakic is set to play with Fleury and rookie Milan Hejduk.
Fleury, who was acquired from the Calgary Flames on Feb. 28, marvels at how good the chemistry is when he, Forsberg and Sakic team up, but he believes the trio will be a force no matter how they're used. "I don't think there have been three offensive players with our skill level on one team since Edmonton in the '80s," he says, "and all the Oilers did was win four Stanley Cups."
Is Dallas too old and too slow?
At first glance the Stars look so doddering that if they won the Cup, they would drink champagne only to wash down their early-bird dinners. They are, in fact, sneaky young. While Dallas is loaded with veterans such as 39-year-old face-off king Guy Carbonneau and 38-year-old shot-blocking defenseman Craig Ludwig, the only player 34 or older who routinely plays more than 15 minutes a game is right wing Brett Hull. To keep everyone fresh, Hitchcock scheduled just four practices in February and March combined. "And in the last month, when we've gotten a lead, I haven't used Mike Modano or Jere Lehtinen much in the second half of a game," the coach says of two of his elite forwards. Hitchcock, who can nag like an in-law, also has done less screaming at his players, mostly because the Stars are as tough on themselves as he is on them. "Over the past two years they've come to understand the huge emotional commitment that needs to be made," Hitchcock says. "This group is able to judge itself in black-and-white terms. The kinds of things they're saying to each other now were what the coaches were saying in October."
While the Stars aren't quarter horses, they haven't exactly been Clydesdales since the March deals for swift forwards Derek Plante and Benoit Hogue. "I've never thought of Dallas as slow," Detroit captain Steve Yzerman says. "I think of them as real physical and cagey, a team that battles, a team with a lot of intelligence that knows what it wants to do and how to do it."
Who stands to lose the most?
Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider has said general manager Bob Clarke is "like a son" to him, which, come to think of it, is what Abraham said about Isaac as he prepared the sacrifice. Clarke's job seems safe, but a hasty playoff exit—almost expected given the injury (collapsed lung) to star center Eric Lindros—will only further erode the G.M.'s reputation as a shrewd team builder. Clarke has been on a two-year losing streak that began with the Flyers' meltdown in the 1997 finals (a sweep by Detroit) and continued with the ill-advised hiring of coach Wayne Cashman, the costly free-agent signing of unproductive forward Chris Gratton and the inexplicable dawdling in obtaining a premier goalie. (Philly finally signed John Vanbiesbrouck last July.) Clarke rapidly built the Flyers into a Cup challenger after taking over as general manager in 1994, but even with unqualified ownership support and a huge budget, he hasn't taken them to the next level.
Will Toronto be able to beat fellow Eastern Conference teams?
You can take Toronto out of the Western Conference—as the NHL did after last season—but you can't take the Wild West out of Toronto. The Leafs were 24-2-0 against the largely free-flowing Western Conference teams this season but only 25-26-5 against the tenacious East. Toronto is as close to a river hockey club as you can find in this age of caution, and is dependent on the explosiveness of forwards such as Mats Sundin and on goalie Curtis Joseph's knack for making the big save.