The contention often advanced by playoff prognosticators that
teams undermine their postseason performance by playing poorly
down the stretch is poppycock. A review of Stanley Cup finalists
from the past five years uncovers many who have stumbled before
they've raced through the playoffs, including last year's
champion Red Wings, who closed the season 2-3-3, and runner-up
Flyers (2-3-2); the 1996 runner-up Panthers (3-6-1); the '95
champion Devils (2-4-1); and the '93 champion Canadiens (2-5)
and runner-up Kings (2-3-1).

Part of the reason that teams like these finish poorly is that
clubs whose playoff spots are assured early hold out valuable
players with even the slightest of injuries from late
regular-season games. (This year the Avalanche, who closed the
season 3-6-1, and the Penguins, 4-4-2, were essentially locked
into the second seed in their respective conferences for the
last month.) Coaches also rest their healthy stars by spreading
around ice time down the stretch.

More subtly, players who have an eye on the Cup can have a
difficult time sustaining intensity before the postseason.
"There's just no way to replicate the playoff atmosphere in the
regular season," says Colorado coach Marc Crawford. "You pace
yourself during the season, and you pick certain spots for a big
push. In the playoffs you let it all out on every shift. It's a
different game."

That helps explain why so many other seeming harbingers of
playoff success prove irrelevant. For instance, the Western
Conference champion Stars and the Eastern Conference champion
Devils should be aware that in the past eight seasons only three
of the 16 conference champs advanced to the Cup finals. "We know
that winning the conference doesn't mean a whole lot," says
Dallas defenseman Derian Hatcher, "but every player here wanted
home ice advantage."

Still, the fact remains that the regular season is little more
than a long and inconsequential pageant. It also points up one
of the exciting aspects of the postseason: The journey to the
Stanley Cup proves all the more captivating because it is so

Glen Sather

Oilers president and general manager (and former coach) Glen
Sather assembled and guided the Edmonton teams that won five
Stanley Cups from 1984 to '90, and though the Oilers have missed
the playoffs four times this decade, he remains among the
shrewdest traders and talent evaluators in the game. So it's no
wonder that Sather has so many suitors after having made it
known that with his contract expiring after this season, he's
considering leaving Edmonton.

"He could be the most-sought-after free agent," says Bruins
general manager Harry Sinden. "The bottom line is knowing who
can play and who can't play, and Glen probably knows that better
than any of us."

The possibility of Sather's departure after 19 years is rooted
in the recent sale of the financially strapped Oilers to a
consortium of 17 businessmen. To stay in Edmonton, Sather wants
assurance the multiheaded new ownership will 1) be as hands-off
on day-to-day hockey decisions as previous owner Peter
Pocklington was, and 2) give him the budget needed to compete
for a Cup. "I've been in survival mode for seven years," says
Sather, whose Oilers finished seventh in the Western Conference
and began the season with an $18.5 million payroll, third lowest
in the NHL. "I'd like to have the opportunity to win."

More than a half dozen teams have emerged as possible employers
for Sather, should he decide to move on: most prominently the
Sharks, the Maple Leafs and the Mighty Ducks. The league would
love to have Sather succeed Brian Burke, its vice president of
hockey operations, who is all but certain to leave his post
after this season. However, that's a thankless, noncreative job
that Sather would be unlikely to accept.

Sather, who will wait until after the June 27 draft to decide on
his future, says he still feels a strong sense of loyalty to
Edmonton. Those close to him--including Sinden--believe that if
Sather gets a reasonable commitment from the new owners, he'll
stay. Otherwise, he will have no difficulty finding another job
under his terms.

Points Leaders

Having one of the NHL's top scorers is no guarantee of team
success in this defense-first era. Four of the eight leading
point-getters this season played on clubs that failed to qualify
for the playoffs: the Canucks' Pavel Bure (third, with 90
points), the Rangers' Wayne Gretzky (fourth, 90), the Islanders'
Zigmund Palffy (sixth, 87) and the Mighty Ducks' Teemu Selanne
(eighth, 86). Meanwhile, none of the league's best three teams
had a player in the top 10 in scoring. The Stars' leading
point-getter finished 22nd (Joe Nieuwendyk, 69 points), the Red
Wings' best was 23rd (Steve Yzerman, 69), and the Devils' top
scorer wound up 30th (Bobby Holik, 65).

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO NO WORRY The poor finish by Peter Forsberg and Colorado doesn't portend playoff trouble. COLOR PHOTO: W. ROBERTS/B. BENNETT STUDIOS [Craig Hartsburg]


Coach Craig Hartsburg
1997-98 salary: $325,000

Chicago was flat when coaching mattered most--at the start
(2-10) and down the stretch (1-8-1)--and missed the playoffs for
the first time in 28 years.

Coach Joel Quenneville
1997-98 salary: $375,000

St. Louis started strong (11-2-2) and overcame injuries to
finish third in the West, reaching the playoffs for the 19th
straight year--the NHL's best streak.