The NHL playoffs have become not merely a rite of spring but also a two-month attempt to set things right, an apologia for a troubled regular season. While there have been splotches of vivid color in 1999-2000, such as Pavel Bure's 58 goals and thrilling four-on-four play in overtime, the NHL has been mostly spray-painted in ash gray primarily because of a string of stick-wielding incidents, most notoriously Marty McSorley's Court TV-bound assault on Donald Brashear.
Enter the playoffs. They are boon and balm, rolled into one grand tournament. If the NHL can avoid another screwup like the "no goal" controversy that sucked some of the joy out of the Dallas Stars' Stanley Cup victory over the Buffalo Sabres last June, and if the hockey is compelling, the banality and boorishness that marred the regular season will recede.
The Western Conference has four titans: the Stars, the Colorado Avalanche, the Detroit Red Wings and the St. Louis Blues. The Eastern Conference has none. The presumptive powers in the East—the New Jersey Devils, the Washington Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs—all slouched as the season ended, while the Philadelphia Flyers will be without the injured Eric Lindros until at least the middle of the second round. In the meantime the revitalized Sabres could become the first No. 8 seed to reach the Cup finals since the NHL adopted its current playoff format in 1994.
1 Can anyone stop Pavel Bure?
Having scored 24% of the Panthers' goals in the regular season, including the game-winning scores in 14 of their 43 victories, Bure (above) needs his Florida teammates more than ever because the Devils will cook up a defensive scheme designed to shut him down. Bure, a nine-year veteran, has thrived in the postseason—he had 34 goals and 32 assists in 60 career games with the Vancouver Canucks before being traded to Florida last season—but he has not had to march through the Eastern Conference, which traditionally plays a more tight-checking style than the Western Conference.
2 Can the Devils finally win a playoff round?
In what is most likely his swan song with the soon-to-be-sold Devils, normally buttoned-down president and general manager Lou Lamoriello has put a lampshade on his head. He repatriated right wing Claude Lemieux, who was exiled from New Jersey following a contract dispute after his heroics in the 1995 playoffs, which the Devils won; traded for enigmatic defenseman Vladimir Malakhov, whose self-centered play would usually make him the anti-Devil; and gambled on erstwhile sniper Alexander Mogilny, whose $5.2 million contract for next season plays against type for salary-conscious New Jersey. The rationale behind those deals: an all-out championship assault to make up for the postseason efforts of the recent past, which have fallen short largely because of a paucity of scoring. Against a suspect Pittsburgh Penguins defense last spring, the Devils had only 18 goals in a seven-game first-round loss; a year earlier New Jersey scored just 12 goals and fell in six games in the opening round to the Ottawa Senators.
"To score consistently in the playoffs you have to be willing to pay the price, to get in front of the net," says Devils coach Larry Robinson, who took over for the fired Robbie Ftorek on March 23. Given Mogilny's inconsistency since being acquired on March 14, Lemieux, who has appeared in 198 postseason games, becomes the key for New Jersey. The Grate One, as Lemieux is known for his irksome ways, has a springtime knack for the net—his .38 goals per playoff game is a better ratio than those of high-scoring Hall of Famers Bobby Clarke, Stan Mikita and Bryan Trottier.
If the Devils' recent indifferent play continues, Martin Brodeur will have to rehabilitate his image as a big-game goalie. His reputation took a hit in the past two years when his playoff goals-against averages inched above his regular-season marks. But with the talent it has assembled, expect New Jersey to beat the Florida Panthers in the first round.
3 Will Raymond Bourque finally get his Stanley Cup?
There hasn't been a sentimental favorite like this since Susan Lucci finally won her daytime Emmy, but the Avalanche has more than sentiment in its favor. The 39-year-old defenseman has been reinvigorated in Colorado, which closed out the regular season with eight straight wins. Bourque has been a power-play monster, scoring seven of his eight goals with a man advantage since joining the Avalanche on March 6. With perennial playoff standout Joe Sakic, who had 17 goals in his final 18 games, and 36-goal scorer Milan Hejduk, who tallied six times in 16 postseason matches as a rookie last year, Colorado has ample firepower in the first round to overcome the loss of Peter Forsberg, who is out indefinitely with a separated right shoulder.