Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, is to hockey forwards what San Pedro de
Macoris, Dominican Republic, is to shortstops. Six active NHL
players, almost 1% of the league, were born in the dreary seaport
(pop. 31,040) located halfway between Stockholm and the Arctic
Circle. To gauge the impact that this small city has on the
league, consider that if Greater Boston produced as many players
per capita, the NHL would have 114 skaters dropping their r's
when they speak. This is instructive as the playoffs begin
because the destination of the Stanley Cup parade may be
determined by which Ornskoldsvik-born star, center Peter Forsberg
of the Colorado Avalanche or left wing Markus Naslund of the
Vancouver Canucks, is the most dominant over the next two months.
The wide-open road to the Cup still goes through Hockeytown,
where the smart and balanced defending-champion Detroit Red Wings
are the favorites to repeat (box, page 64), but the Wings will be
challenged by several teams. Foremost among them are the
Avalanche and the Canucks, clubs led by the NHL's two best
players this season: 29-year-old franchise forwards who were born
10 days apart, grew up less than 10 miles from one another and
have been friends since childhood.
Forsberg led the league with 106 points, two more than Naslund,
who finished second. Forsberg, who has never scored more than 30
goals (he had 29 this season), was a gaudy +52; Naslund, who has
scored at least 40 goals in each of the past three seasons (he
had 48 in '02-03), had an NHL-best 12 game-winning goals but was
only +6. The 6'1", 205-pound Forsberg created chances with
uncanny vision and an unrivaled strength on his skates; the
6-foot, 195-pound Naslund haunted goalies with his wicked wrist
"Not to take anything from Naslund, but I think Pete controls
more of the game than anybody," Colorado defenseman Adam Foote
says of his teammate. "He takes teams off their games and opens
up the ice. No question he should win the Hart Trophy [as league
MVP]. Of course, if I'm in the Vancouver room, I'd be saying some
of the same things about Naslund."
The more significant hardware that Forsberg and Naslund have
their eyes on is the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the playoff
MVP, an award Forsberg almost won last year even though the
Avalanche lost to Detroit in the riveting seven-game Western
Conference finals. Returning from a nearly yearlong absence
following the removal of his spleen and operations to repair
ailments in both feet, Forsberg had nine goals and a playoff-high
27 points despite playing in only three rounds. His 1.35
points-per-game average was the best in the postseason since 1997.
Naslund has a slimmer spring portfolio than Forsberg, who has
been on two Cup winners and has played in almost 10 times as many
postseason games. In 12 playoff matches Naslund has two goals,
and he scored only one last year when Vancouver collapsed in the
first round after taking a 2-0 series lead against Detroit.
Naslund and linemates Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison were
limited to three goals in six games, an understandable total
considering that the Canucks were a one-line team playing a
defensively strong opponent. Vancouver is modestly deeper now
thanks to the ripening of Daniel and Henrik Sedin, 22-year-old
twins from, yes, Ornskoldsvik. Still, the club remains top-heavy:
Naslund's line accounted for 45% of the Canucks' 264 goals.
"Markus is a passionate player," says coach Marc Crawford of his
team captain. "The difference between him and most Swedes is that
he's a scorer. He's got that positive selfishness. He understands
he's the guy with the best chance to put the puck in."
Naslund grew up on the north side of Ornskoldsvik. For most of
his youth he played organized hockey on outdoor ice in his
neighborhood. Forsberg, a south sider, was affiliated with the
town's premier club, MoDo, by the time he was six, benefiting
from its indoor rink. Naslund's club would practice outside until
the temperature dipped below -15°. If it began to snow, half the
team would shovel the rink while the other half kept practicing.
By the time they were seven, Naslund and Forsberg knew each other
and sometimes would talk after games. But Naslund, who was more
advanced, often played with older teams, something Forsberg did
When they were 14, Naslund and Forsberg became teammates on a
regional all-star squad, but the marriage as linemates of the
best goal scorer (Naslund) and the best playmaker (Forsberg) in
town was shaky. The next season, playing on the same team but on
different lines, they won a national championship. The duo went
on to attend one of the two high schools in Sweden at which
academics and hockey development carry equal weight. "We were
pretty good students," Forsberg says. "Markus would stir up
things a lot. You look at him and think he's the quietest guy in
the world, but let me put it this way: He wasn't the [teacher's
pet] sitting in the front row."
The two were inseparable for a while, as classmates, as teammates
on the MoDo Juniors and as roommates on the junior national team.
When they were 18, they even worked together for a summer,
clearing brush under power lines for the electric company that
also employed Forsberg's father, Kent (who later became the
Swedish national coach), and Naslund's mother, Ulla. "It was hard
work," Forsberg says. "There are lots of trees in Sweden."
That year, 1991, there were lots of other promising junior
players in Europe who were eligible for the NHL draft. Until then
there never had been more than two Europeans selected in the
first round, but that year five were chosen, including Forsberg,
who went sixth to the Philadelphia Flyers, and Naslund, who was
chosen 16th by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Forsberg remained with
MoDo, and the next year the Flyers traded his rights, four other
players, a No. 1 draft pick and $15 million to the Quebec
Nordiques for the rights to 19-year-old Eric Lindros in one of
the most ballyhooed deals in league history.
A year later Forsberg was the best prospect in the world. At the
1993 world junior championships he led all scorers with 31 points
in only seven games. Naslund, meanwhile, was developing slowly in
Pittsburgh, and in '96 he was part of perhaps the dumbest deal in
NHL history. The Penguins traded him to the Canucks for Alex
Stojanov, who went on to score two goals in 107 games before
Until last season Forsberg and Naslund talked frequently during
the season and sometimes dined together. When the Avalanche was
in Vancouver, Forsberg would go to his friend's house, where
Naslund's wife, Lotta, would whip up some of their favorite
Swedish dishes. For Forsberg, the food went down a lot better
before the Canucks began developing into an elite team. The
dinner invitations have since dried up, and the phone calls
mostly have stopped. The rivalry between the two teams, and the
players' divergent personal lives (the Naslunds have three kids,
while Forsberg remains single), have shaded the friendship. Now
they usually catch up with each other over the summer. Sometime
in late July or early August, many of the NHL players from
Ornskoldsvik--Samuel Pahlson of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and
Niklas Sundstrom of the Montreal Canadiens, in addition to
Forsberg, Naslund and the Sedin twins--will start practicing
together at MoDo and then go to Mama Mia's, an Italian joint in
town with hockey memorabilia on the walls, where they'll indulge
in spaghetti bolognese and good conversation.
Of course, this summer there will be lots to talk about. Naslund
might mention that he finally topped the 100-point plateau.
Forsberg might say that when Colorado star Joe Sakic missed 24
games in midseason, he took over the team--and the NHL--with 10
goals, 28 assists and a +25 rating, helping the Avalanche get 33
of a possible 40 points during that stretch. But those
accomplishments will be rendered moot if either Forsberg or
Naslund can talk about hoisting the Stanley Cup.
SI special contributor Pierre McGuire analyzes the pairings in
the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs
1 STARS (46-17-15-4) VS. 8 OILERS (36-26-11-9)
SEASON SERIES Dallas 3-1-0-0 TELLING STAT Two Stars, Kirk Muller
and Jason Arnott, have scored Cup-winning goals, Muller for the
1993 Canadiens, Arnott for the 2000 Devils.
This will be an up-tempo, physical series. Dallas is banged up
(box, page 67) but has the NHL's top defensive shutdown tandem in
Derian Hatcher and Sergei Zubov. Expect Hatcher to be matched
against wing Ryan Smyth, who loves to crash the crease. To be
successful, Edmonton needs to contain explosive center Mike
Modano; that job will likely go to defenseman Eric Brewer, 23.
The Oilers also need to stay out of the box because their penalty
killers are no match for Dallas's outstanding power play. Stars
2 RED WINGS (48-20-10-4) VS. 7 MIGHTY DUCKS (40-27-9-6)
SEASON SERIES Detroit 3-1-0-0 TELLING STAT The Mighty Ducks were
the NHL's most improved team, increasing their point total from
69 in 2001-02 to 95 this season.
A puck-possession team, Anaheim must do well on face-offs to have
a chance against the defending champions. If Detroit dominates on
draws, the Red Wings will control the play, pressure the
inexperienced Mighty Ducks defense and create havoc for
goaltender J.S. Giguere. Detroit's blue line was bolstered by the
late-season acquisition of veteran Mathieu Schneider, who teams
with Chris Chelios to form a tough and skillful tandem. Expect
them to line up against Anaheim's top scorer, Paul Kariya. Wings
3 AVALANCHE (42-19-13-8) VS. 6 WILD (42-29-10-1)
SEASON SERIES Colorado 2-0-2-1 TELLING STAT Minnesota's Dwayne
Roloson and Manny Fernandez had a combined .926 save percentage,
best among NHL netminding duos.
This seems to be a mismatch in Colorado's favor. The Avalanche
was among the NHL's hottest teams down the stretch and had the
league's only 50-goal scorer (Milan Hejduk) and best playmaker
(Peter Forsberg). To keep the series close the Wild must play a
tight checking style, or Colorado's offensive depth will blow
away the Minnesota goalies. Expect Wild speedsters Marian Gaborik
and Cliff Ronning to get a steady hammering from the Avs'
physical blueliners, led by Adam Foote. Avalanche in five.
4 CANUCKS (45-23-13-1) VS. 5 BLUES (41-24-11-6)
SEASON SERIES Vancouver 2-1-1-0 TELLING STAT St. Louis set a
league record by getting victories from seven goaltenders this
This will be the most physical series in the first round, and
both teams have excellent power plays. Vancouver, which relies on
one line (center Brendan Morrison and wings Markus Naslund and
Todd Bertuzzi), does not match up well against the more balanced
Blues, especially since the return of St. Louis defenseman Chris
Pronger from surgery on his wrist. This series, however, may turn
on the play of the goalies: the Canucks' Dan Cloutier and the Blues'
Chris Osgood are prone to making big mistakes. Blues in six.
SI special contributor Pierre McGuire analyzes the pairings in
the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs
1 SENATORS (52-21-8-1) VS. 8 ISLANDERS (35-34-11-2)
SEASON SERIES Ottawa 2-1-1-0 TELLING STAT This season the
Senators had a 24-game streak in which they allowed three goals
or fewer, the longest such stretch in 48 years.
Ottawa is a deep club that will roll four lines and force a
high-tempo game, a strategy that should exhaust a thin New York
team. Senators forwards such as Marian Hossa have superior speed
and finishing ability, so expect the Islanders to counter by
being overly physical, a tactic that slowed Ottawa in the past
(box, page 67). The Senators will pound the Islanders' defensemen
on the forecheck and wear down big-minute blueliners such as
Adrian Aucoin, Roman Hamrlik and Janne Niinimaa. Senators in
2 DEVILS (46-20-10-6) VS. 7 BRUINS (36-31-11-4)
SEASON SERIES New Jersey 2-1-1-0 TELLING STAT During the regular
season the Devils were 33-0-5-1 when entering the third period
with a lead.
Expect a--yawn--trapfest: Both teams are experts at clogging the
neutral zone. Boston relies heavily on its top line of center Joe
Thornton and wings Glen Murray and Mike Knuble, so expect New
Jersey to match them with a five-man defensive unit led by center
John Madden and blueliner Scott Stevens. If the Devils shut down
that line, the Bruins are toast. New Jersey also has a huge
advantage with Martin Brodeur, the best goaltender in the game.
As of Sunday, Boston was unsure who would start in net. Devils in
3 LIGHTNING (36-25-16-5) VS. 6 CAPITALS (39-29-8-6).
SEASON SERIES Washington 3-2-0-0 TELLING STAT Washington's
Sergei Gonchar (67 points) and Tampa's Dan Boyle (53) finished
one-two in scoring among East defensemen.
This series could turn on whether Washington's Jaromir Jagr is
the dominant forward he was at times during the season or the
invisible player he was down the stretch. Expect the Capitals to
attack goalie Nikolai Khabibulin by crashing the crease. Tampa
Bay will need its big defensemen, Jassen Cullimore and Pavel
Kubina, to keep that area clear. At the same time, the Lightning
must stay out of the penalty box because the Washington power
play, led by quarterback Gonchar, is strong. Capitals in six.
4 FLYERS (45-20-13-4) VS. 5 MAPLE LEAFS (44-28-7-3)
SEASON SERIES Tied 2-2-0-0 TELLING STAT Toronto's Pat Quinn has
coached more playoff games (163) without winning a Stanley Cup
than anyone else in NHL history.
Note to the fainthearted: Do not watch this series. The Leafs
love to get down and dirty, and the Flyers can play that game
too. Philly, though, also has tremendous size, skill and speed.
If Toronto roughs up Philadelphia, its penalty killing had better
be as strong as it was during the season. Flyers goalie Roman
Cechmanek must prove he's not the flameout he's been in previous
playoffs. Philly has an advantage behind the bench because Ken
Hitchcock is more adept than Quinn at making in-game adjustments.
Flyers in six.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
SI senior writer Michael Farber has the answers to four key
questions as the postseason begins
1. Can young Detroit forwards Pavel Datsyuk, 24, and Henrik
Zetterberg, 22, continue their stellar play for the defending
champs under postseason pressure?
Datsyuk, Zetterberg and irrepressible 38-year-old Brett Hull made
up the Red Wings' most dynamic line in the second half of the
season (98 points in 30 games). Datsyuk established a modest
playoff pedigree as a rookie last season with a game-winner and
two other goals, while Zetterberg finished this year with a
flourish, leading NHL first-year players in goals (22) and points
(44). Also, Zetterberg was a revelation for Sweden in the 2002
Olympics, which will provide a solid base for his first Cup
experience. Because Detroit also features star forwards Sergei
Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan, the Hull-Datsyuk-Zetterberg line
has the benefit of seldom facing a No. 1 defensive pair.
2. Is there a low-seeded sleeper that could make a bona fide run
to the Stanley Cup finals?
Over the past seven years, six franchises have represented the
East in the Cup finals, many of them flawed teams that rode
momentum and some lucky breaks before being knocked out by a
Western Conference powerhouse. The Eastern club to watch this
year is fifth-seeded Toronto. The Leafs are loaded, with
high-rent center Mats Sundin, stellar goaltending from Ed
Belfour, who won the Cup with the Stars in 1999, and conspicuous
toughness. Toronto improved itself before the trade deadline by
picking up hard-nosed forward Owen Nolan and veteran defenseman
Phil Housley. (Forward Doug Gilmour and defenseman Glen Wesley
were also acquired at the deadline but are sidelined for at least
the beginning of the first round with injuries.)
3. Is Ottawa finally tough enough?
One coach recently called the Senators, who have been physically
overwhelmed and bounced out of the playoffs for the last three
years by the Maple Leafs, a "sissy team." The acquisition of
irritating forward Vaclav Varada and the emergence of 6'9",
255-pound defenseman Zdeno Chara have given Ottawa a
get-your-nose-dirty approach. Ottawa would also benefit if star
forwards Marian Hossa (five goals in 26 playoff games) and Radek
Bonk (three in 36) can fight through checks and get to the net.
4. Is Dallas healthy enough for the two-month grind?
Among this team's plethora of key injuries--forward Bill Guerin's
right thigh surgery, forward Pierre Turgeon's broken left ankle
and defenseman Philippe Boucher's so-called "upper-body
injury"--the most significant is Guerin's. The right wing, who has
averaged a point per game in his past two playoffs, won't be back
until at least midway through the first round. Center Mike
Modano, who suffered what was described as a "lower-body injury"
last week but who played on Sunday, also bears watching to see if
he's at full strength. Fortunately for the Stars, goaltender
Marty Turco appears healthy after returning on March 23 from a
right ankle sprain that sidelined him for 18 games.
history, Naslund in one of the dumbest.
friendship between Forsberg and Naslund.