With the rumblings of a lockout as a soundtrack, with goals per game dipping to soccer's level and with suspensions for acts of violence being handed out like hors d'oeuvres, the NHL lurched this week from regular-season parody to Stanley Cup parity. The postseason is as open as an all-night New Jersey diner.
If "predictions are for gypsies," as Montreal Canadiens coach Toe Blake once huffed, well, pass the hoop earrings and the tambourine. The only chalk in the NHL playoffs will be the outline of a presumptive favorite on the sidewalk. Some one—a No. 1—is going down early. And a No. 2 seed ( Boston Bruins or San Jose Sharks) will lose to a No. 7 ( Montreal Canadiens or St. Louis Blues) in the first round (matchups, pages 64 and 65).
This is less Kreskin than actuarial table. In this graveyard of favorites only seven of 28 top seeds in the last 14 years have reached the finals. (Only the 2001 Colorado Avalanche- New Jersey Devils series matched regular-season conference champs in the finals.) And since intradivisional playoffs were scrapped in '94, a No. 7 has beaten a No. 2 in the first round every year except '96. (Over the last six postseasons No. 7s have won 75% of their first-round series and a No. 8 has beaten a No. 1 four times.)
Who let the underdogs out? The NHL lords who expanded the league. Between the 1979-80 and '90-91 seasons, when the NHL had 21 teams instead of the current 30, making the playoffs was only slightly more challenging than obtaining a library card. There was a canyon between the top and bottom seeds. This year only 15 points separated the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning and the No. 8 New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference, three fewer than the spread between the Detroit Red Wings and the eighth-place Nashville Predators in the West. The East's differential is the smallest in a full season under the post-1994 playoff format.
Even the standings are not necessarily a reflection of the merits of a team in April. With an absurdly late trading deadline (March 9), NHL contenders can stock up on talent for the last 12 or 13 games of the schedule and the playoffs. This year the Bruins were able to pick at the carrion of the Washington Capitals and abscond with a gifted offensive defenseman, Sergei Gonchar, and a No. 2 center, Michael Nylander. The late addition of rent-a-scorer Steve Sullivan by Nashville changed the dynamic of the Predators and, perhaps, the first round.
Here are other elements that contribute to the preponderance of playoff surprises:
THE GOALIE FACTOR
The fulcrum of the postseason upset is the goalie, as Anaheim's Jean-S�bastien Gigu�re showed in carrying the Mighty Ducks to a shocking first-round sweep of the second-seeded Red Wings last year. There is no comparable position in major pro sports. Starting a hot goalie night after night is the equivalent of giving Pedro Martinez the ball for every playoff game, knowing he'll have his good stuff. Goaltending makes the Calgary Flames an intriguing long shot as the No. 6 seed in the West. Miikka Kiprusoff, whose 1.69 goals-against average was the best since '39-40, is acrobatic in the crease, a flash going post-to-post and has a decent glove, rare among European goalies. There are two i's in Miikka, matching the two eyes the Finn seems to have in the back of his head on wraparounds. Kiprusoff, acquired five weeks into the season from San Jose, didn't play until mid-November and then missed six weeks because of a sprained left knee, yet he allowed more than two goals in just six of his 38 starts. In the tight-checking playoffs a goalie such as Kiprusoff on a team with a physical defense and an appetite for hard work can camouflage talent deficiencies for a round or two.
"You're as good as your goaltending," says center Craig Conroy, whose Flames—in the playoffs for the first time since 1996—improved their chances of pulling off an upset with their late-season acquisition of edgy forwards Chris Simon, Ville Nieminen and Marcus Nilson. "It's a dangerous combination: goaltending and a team that's hungry because it hasn't made the playoffs [in a long time]. It seems as if every year there's one surprise team that jumps out. Who's to say it's not going to be us?"
The two-month tournament, with each team playing an intense game virtually every other night, starts exacting a toll in the first round. In 2001 the Red Wings were up two games to none on the seventh-seeded Kings but had lost captain Steve Yzerman (broken left ankle) and star left wing Brendan Shanahan (broken left foot) in Game 1. By Game 3 L.A. was exploiting those absences and went on to take the series in six. Teams that enter the playoffs with stars hobbled by injuries, such as Detroit (goalie Curtis Joseph has a sprained right ankle) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (winger Owen Nolan's right knee is ailing), look vulnerable. And be wary of a favorite that had key players return from long layoffs in the final days of the regular season, such as the third-seeded Philadelphia Flyers, who got back center Keith Primeau (concussion) and lead defenseman Eric Desjardins (broken right arm) last week. Often it takes a recovering player a few weeks to regain his form.