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Prepare for playoffs

Posted: Monday, April 15, 2002

Money doesn't always matter, and this NHL season also provided some other surprises -- scoring leader Jarome Iginla, Montreal goalie Jose Theodore and the remarkable run of the Phoenix Coyotes.

Sure, the high-priced Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers are in the playoffs, but the team with the league's top payroll -- the New York Rangers -- finished 11th in the Eastern Conference and out of the postseason for the fifth straight year.

The Capitals and Stars, in the top 10 of league payrolls, also missed the playoffs.

Washington's acquisition of Jaromir Jagr didn't seem to matter as the Caps started too slow to use their customary late-season push to secure a berth.

''I'll be bored for sure,'' said Jagr, who has an $88 million contract. ''It's a long summer.''

The Stars, who fired coach Ken Hitchcock after a slow start, muddled through the rest of the season, too, under interim coach Rick Wilson. Dallas missed the playoffs three years after winning the Stanley Cup.

Meanwhile, Vancouver and Ottawa, among the 10 teams with the lowest payrolls, made the playoffs with steady, disciplined efforts.

This season also featured new stars who shared the spotlight once focused only on superstar Mario Lemieux, who couldn't shake a nagging hip injury and played just 24 games for Pittsburgh this season. The Penguins missed the playoffs for the first time since 1990.

Who would have picked Calgary's Iginla to win both the scoring and goal-scoring race or Montreal's Theodore to have the best save percentage among league starters?

Theodore, with a .931 save percentage, carried the Canadiens to the playoffs with remarkable play in a stunning seven-game winning streak at the end of the season and is, arguably, the league's most valuable player.

''I just can't put it into words how great he's played,'' Canadiens center Shaun Van Allen said. ''I think he's got to be the MVP -- he's definitely the MVP on our team, and he's definitely got a shot in the league.''

The 24-year-old Iginla, who has improved each of his seven seasons, proved to be a brilliant offensive force for the Flames.

He showed refreshing enthusiasm -- and a bit of awe -- throughout his 52-goal, 96-point season. He also earned a gold medal after a strong Olympic performance for Canada, and attended his first All Star weekend.

''I feel very fortunate and very blessed because it does feel like a lot of dreams have come true,'' Iginla said. ''I've gotten some good breaks, so there have been a lot of things that have gone right.''

Phoenix was the team to completely defy preseason predictions, charging undaunted through a difficult Western Conference schedule.

By winning their final game 6-4 on Sunday, scoring four third-period goals to beat Nashville, the Coyotes leapfrogged over two teams to secure the No. 6 seed in the playoffs.

Phoenix dumped nearly two-thirds of its payroll from last season.

''It's just a nice Cinderella story,'' Phoenix co-owner Wayne Gretzky said this week. ''I mean, we were picked 30th out of 30 by every person in North America ... and I don't blame people for picking us that way -- we put a whole new team here. But what makes this team fun is how hard they work.''

The season had its share of lowlights and highlights: the tragic death of a young Columbus Blue Jackets fan after being struck with a puck; Saku Koivu returning from cancer to give the Canadiens a lift in the final three games of the regular season; the seventh concussion of Eric Lindros' career and his first with the Rangers; and the New York Islanders earning the fifth seed in the East after finishing worst in the NHL last season.

Notes: Atlanta's Dany Heatley led all rookies with 67 points, 16 more than teammate Ilya Kovalchuk, who missed the final 17 games of the season with a shoulder injury. ... Philadelphia's Adam Oates had the most assists this season, with 64. ... Toronto's Mats Sundin and Boston's Bill Guerin were second in the goal-scoring race with 41 each. ... Colorado allowed the fewest goals this season, meaning goalie Patrick Roy will get the William Jennings Trophy. Roy allowed two or fewer goals in 22 of his last 29 starts. ... Florida's Peter Worrell had the most penalty minutes with 354. ... Chicago clinched its first postseason berth since 1997.



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