Aiming High With the tumultuous regular season in the books, contenders and pretenders have set their sights on the Stanley Cup. As the playoffs begin, here are the answers to 10 pressing questions

April 16, 2000

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.

Surprisingly, the team's biggest stumbling block in the later
rounds will be in goal. Despite a history that includes 10
overtime wins for the Montreal Canadiens in the 1993 playoffs and
three postseason shutouts during Colorado's 1996 Stanley Cup run,
the ever-confident Patrick Roy rarely steals a game anymore--a
playoff necessity. Roy always embraces a challenge, but right now
he is a notch below the Blues' Roman Turek and Dallas's Ed
Belfour in the Western Conference.

4 Which is the most dangerous lower-seeded team?

The red flag went up around the NHL when Buffalo general manager
Darcy Regier acquired center Doug Gilmour to revive a fading
club. The Sabres, who won seven of their final 10 games to
qualify for the eighth berth in the East, are loaded up the
middle with Gilmour, Michael Peca and the underrated Curtis
Brown. "How lucky is it to finish first in the conference and
have to play the Sabres, with the MVP goalie from two of the
last three years?" St. Louis general manager Larry Pleau asks.
"You work hard all year to be Number 1; then you play Hasek. I'd
be scared as hell if I played them." That first-round opponent
turned out to be Philadelphia.

5 Who is the best goalie in the Eastern Conference?

Six of the eight starting goalies--Brodeur, Ottawa's Tom
Barrasso, Buffalo's Dominik Hasek, Toronto's Curtis Joseph,
Washington's Olaf Kolzig (left) and Florida's Mike Vernon--have
combined to win five Stanley Cups, one Conn Smythe Trophy, two
Harts, six Vezinas, five Jennings and two Calders, and have made
five Olympic teams. But as spectacular as Hasek is and as
dominant as Joseph has been in the playoffs (an average of one
shutout for every 9.4 games), a snapshot taken today would most
flatter Kolzig, a.k.a. Godzilla. Since January he has put the
thrilla back in Godzilla, making saves with the self-assuredness
he had in 1998 when Washington reached the Cup finals. "Kolzig's
proved himself all year," says John LeClair, a 40-goal scorer
for the Flyers. "He's really quick for a big goalie."

6 Do the Blues have another gear?

There will come a moment during the playoffs when St. Louis will
have to lift its play even beyond the level it attained in
putting together the NHL's best record (51-20-11-1). In some way
the Blues already have located that gear, going 15-7 in one-goal
games, but they must do that in the crucible of spring.

St. Louis boasts Chris Pronger (right), who deserves to be this
season's MVP, the NHL's hardest-working forwards and solid
goaltending from Turek. But pitfalls abound. High-scoring Pavol
Demitra is sidelined for most of the first round with a
concussion, and the reconstituted Slovak Line, with Ladislav
Nagy taking Demitra's place on the wing, has scored only one
goal since his injury on March 24. While St. Louis has been
built around a coterie of veterans such as Pronger, defenseman
Al MacInnis and center Pierre Turgeon, it also depends on
neophytes like Turek and forwards Nagy, Marty Reasoner, Lubos
Bartecko and Michal Handzus. Turek is a goaltending oddity on
two counts: It's unusual that a man his size (6'3") prefers to
stand instead of dropping into the butterfly style, and he's a
European who handles the puck well. During the season Turek was
a model of calm, a disposition that might change--Game 1 against
the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday will be his first playoff
appearance. One final note of caution: In 1999-2000 the Blues,
who in each of the last three years lost in the playoffs to the
eventual Cup winner, had a combined 6-7-1-0 record against
Dallas, Detroit and Colorado.

7 Which is the deepest team?

When the Red Wings won two straight Cups, in 1997 and '98, they
were bolstered by shock troopers like Darren McCarty, who scored
the fanciest goal in the '97 finals, against Philadelphia; Martin
Lapointe, who had nine goals in 21 playoff games in '98; and Doug
Brown (right) and Kris Draper, who had the tying and winning
goals, respectively, in Game 2 against Washington that year. "If
you look at the years in which we've had long runs, the scoring
has come throughout the lineup," Detroit general manager Ken
Holland says. "That's a piece of everyone's Stanley Cup puzzle."
When the Wings flamed out in the second round last year, Steve
Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Slava Kozlov accounted for 58% of
their playoff goals.

Detroit should be bolstered by the first-round return, from a
groin injury, of McCarty. The Wings have also been buoyed by the
return to good health of Brent Gilchrist, a solid utility forward
who had missed 153 games over the past three years with a series
of ailments. The depth will benefit Detroit in the later rounds,
if it gets there.

8 Can Dallas overcome the loss of defenseman Sergei Zubov?

The Stars cruised through the first round last year without
another key defenseman, suspended captain Derian Hatcher, but
Zubov (above) is even more important to Dallas than Hatcher was.
He not only runs the power play, but he also controls the tempo
of the game with his passing. "We're a lot better in transition
with him," coach Ken Hitchcock says. "We seldom get bogged
down." Zubov is expected to return from the injury to his right
medial collateral ligament late in the first round, and with
Sylvain Cote, a critical late-season addition, filling in on the
point, the Stars should slip past the Edmonton Oilers.

One concern for Dallas is that its swagger seems to be missing,
which could prove to be its undoing. Rarely do the Stars strip
an opponent, leave it by the side of the road and sell the parts
for scrap anymore. "Last season we would control the tempo of
the game and never beat ourselves," Hitchcock says. "This year
we've had a tendency to make big errors. We've had to rely on
our goalie [Belfour] even more. We're a little bit of a mystery
now, even to us."

9 Will Ottawa's gamble on Tom Barrasso work?

Traditionally, the Senators have had the most collegial of
dressing rooms, John Belushi's Delta Tau Chi on ice. In the
riskiest trade of the year, they added Barrasso, the NHL's
equivalent of Dean Wormer. The opinionated Barrasso can be a
difficult person. He can also win a playoff series almost
single-handedly, as he proved in Cup-winning years in Pittsburgh
(1991 and '92) and in the first-round upset of the Devils last
season. Barrasso has a portfolio that makes him indispensable
for Ottawa, which unraveled in the first round last year. "He's
good for us," defenseman Wade Redden says of Barrasso, who has
battled injuries and the emotional turmoil of his father's death
this season. "He's confident in everything he does. He'll stand
in there, even if we get down."

"I had dinner with Tommy last week," said Flyers winger Rick
Tocchet, a former Penguins teammate from 1992 to '94. "He's keyed
up, excited about being there. I've seen him steal games, steal
series. Tommy is a great athlete, but he's also technically
sound. Not too many goalies are both."

10 So who will win the Cup?

The Devils will come out of the East, but before the season we
picked Dallas to win it all, so we'll stick with the Stars.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY J. MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS COLOR ILLUSTRATION: JOHN CUNEO COLOR ILLUSTRATION: JEFF WONG COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL COLOR ILLUSTRATION: FRED HARPER

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