NHL regroups for round two

Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2004

As soon as Toronto forward Joe Nieuwendyk slipped two long shots past Ottawa's Patrick Lalime, the transformation of the Stanley Cup playoffs was complete.

With the Senators gone, none of last year's semifinalists made it to the second round in 2004.

Ottawa was eliminated Tuesday night by the Toronto Maple Leafs, joining the defending champion New Jersey Devils for summer break. The Devils outlasted the Senators in seven games last year in the Eastern Conference finals.

Out West, there are four new teams in the conference semifinals. The finalists from a year ago Minnesota and Anaheim didn't even qualify for the postseason.

Of the eight remaining clubs this year, only the Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers got this far a year ago. And both have a great chance to get to the next round because they will be well rested by the time they hit the ice again.

Philadelphia knocked out the Devils in five games, and the top-seeded Lightning did the same to the New York Islanders. Now they'll each face teams that were stretched to the seven-game limit.

The Flyers will get the Maple Leafs, the team they eliminated in the first round last year.

''We're ready to go,'' Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. ''This is nothing new. The rivalry is as heated as it can get.''

The Lightning will face sixth-seeded Montreal. The Canadiens were down 3-1 in their series with No. 2 Boston, but rallied to overcome that deficit for the first time in their storied history, which includes 23 Stanley Cup championships.

''Teams that win the Stanley Cup, they get those rests in between each series. It's very important,'' Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella said.

Colorado and San Jose advanced to a second-round matchup in the Western Conference with five-game wins over Dallas and St. Louis. The Avalanche won the two previous series, including a second-round matchup two years ago.

Detroit beat Nashville in six games and will take on the Calgary Flames, which outlasted Vancouver in seven.

The Flames didn't look out of place in their first appearance in the playoffs since 1996. Calgary hadn't won a series since capturing the Stanley Cup in 1989, yet the Flames acted like season veterans against the Canucks.

Facing a 4-0 deficit in Game 6 with a chance to close out the series at home, Calgary stormed back to tie before losing in triple overtime. No matter, the Flames pulled out their own overtime victory two nights later at Vancouver after allowing the Canucks to get even in the closing seconds of regulation.

Could goalie Miikka Kiprusoff be this year's version of Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who led seventh-seeded Anaheim to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003? He can't be counted on to post those kinds of gaudy numbers, but up front Jarome Iginla can.

''Iginla is a powerful and talented forward, who may be playing as well as anyone in the world,'' Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. ''Kiprusoff has been one of the NHL's most outstanding goaltenders all season.''

Iginla had five goals, two in the series clincher, and three assists in the series. That came on the heels of his 41-goal regular season that made him an NHL MVP finalist.

The Red Wings know all about upstart opponents. They were Anaheim's first victim last year. The Mighty Ducks swept the defending champions out of the playoffs in four games.

Detroit took a step up this season, clinching home ice throughout the playoffs by posting an NHL-best 109 points. The Red Wings let Nashville get even after four games before turning goaltending duties over to Curtis Joseph for victories in Games 5 and 6.

''It's going to be tough, for sure,'' Kiprusoff said. ''They have a great team and great experience. But we have to play our own game, like we did against Vancouver, and trust our team.''

The Lightning are still newcomers to the playoff party, but they are anything but underdogs. Postseason pedigrees aside, Tampa Bay is expected to reach the conference finals for the first time.

With 106 regular-season points, 13 more than Montreal, it could be the Lightning's time to advance.

Martin St. Louis went scoreless in the first two games against the Islanders before finding the touch that won the scoring title in the regular season. He had four goals and an assist in the final three games versus New York, ending the series with an overtime goal in Game 5.

The Lightning will rely on Nikolai Khabibulin to stop the Canadiens' top line of Saku Koivu, Richard Zednik and Alex Kovalev, who combined for 10 goals and 16 assists against Boston.

Khabibulin stopped 137 of 141 Islanders shots.

Those are numbers that even exceeded the fine play of San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov, who had a 1.56 goals-against average in the first round against St. Louis.

The Sharks are considered the underdog despite earning 104 points one season after missing the playoffs. Colorado failed to win a division title for the first time in 10 years.

''This was a team that was supposed to run away with the conference, if not the whole league,'' Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. ''They might be looking to make up for it now. If you look at talent, man for man, they have to be the favorite.''

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