Someone's Going To Be Upset Favorites often exit early on the road to the Stanley Cup

April 11, 2004

With the rumblings of a lockout as a soundtrack, with goals per
game dipping to soccer's level and with suspensions for acts of
violence being handed out like hors d'oeuvres, the NHL lurched
this week from regular-season parody to Stanley Cup parity. The
postseason is as open as an all-night New Jersey diner. ¶ If
"predictions are for gypsies," as Montreal Canadiens coach Toe
Blake once huffed, well, pass the hoop earrings and the
tambourine. The only chalk in the NHL playoffs will be the
outline of a presumptive favorite on the sidewalk. Some one--a
No. 1--is going down early. And a No. 2 seed (Boston Bruins or
San Jose Sharks) will lose to a No. 7 (Montreal Canadiens or St.
Louis Blues) in the first round (matchups, pages 64 and 65).

This is less Kreskin than actuarial table. In this graveyard of
favorites only seven of 28 top seeds in the last 14 years have
reached the finals. (Only the 2001 Colorado Avalanche-New Jersey
Devils series matched regular-season conference champs in the
finals.) And since intradivisional playoffs were scrapped in '94,
a No. 7 has beaten a No. 2 in the first round every year except
'96. (Over the last six postseasons No. 7s have won 75% of their
first-round series and a No. 8 has beaten a No. 1 four times.)

Who let the underdogs out? The NHL lords who expanded the league.
Between the 1979-80 and '90-91 seasons, when the NHL had 21 teams
instead of the current 30, making the playoffs was only slightly
more challenging than obtaining a library card. There was a
canyon between the top and bottom seeds. This year only 15 points
separated the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning and the No. 8 New
York Islanders in the Eastern Conference, three fewer than the
spread between the Detroit Red Wings and the eighth-place
Nashville Predators in the West. The East's differential is the
smallest in a full season under the post-1994 playoff format.

Even the standings are not necessarily a reflection of the merits
of a team in April. With an absurdly late trading deadline (March
9), NHL contenders can stock up on talent for the last 12 or 13
games of the schedule and the playoffs. This year the Bruins were
able to pick at the carrion of the Washington Capitals and
abscond with a gifted offensive defenseman, Sergei Gonchar, and a
No. 2 center, Michael Nylander. The late addition of
rent-a-scorer Steve Sullivan by Nashville changed the dynamic of
the Predators and, perhaps, the first round.

Here are other elements that contribute to the preponderance of
playoff surprises:

THE GOALIE FACTOR The fulcrum of the postseason upset is the
goalie, as Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere showed in carrying
the Mighty Ducks to a shocking first-round sweep of the
second-seeded Red Wings last year. There is no comparable
position in major pro sports. Starting a hot goalie night after
night is the equivalent of giving Pedro Martinez the ball for
every playoff game, knowing he'll have his good stuff.
Goaltending makes the Calgary Flames an intriguing long shot as
the No. 6 seed in the West. Miikka Kiprusoff, whose 1.69
goals-against average was the best since '39-40, is acrobatic in
the crease, a flash going post-to-post and has a decent glove,
rare among European goalies. There are two i's in Miikka,
matching the two eyes the Finn seems to have in the back of his
head on wraparounds. Kiprusoff, acquired five weeks into the
season from San Jose, didn't play until mid-November and then
missed six weeks because of a sprained left knee, yet he allowed
more than two goals in just six of his 38 starts. In the
tight-checking playoffs a goalie such as Kiprusoff on a team with
a physical defense and an appetite for hard work can camouflage
talent deficiencies for a round or two.

"You're as good as your goaltending," says center Craig Conroy,
whose Flames--in the playoffs for the first time since
1996--improved their chances of pulling off an upset with their
late-season acquisition of edgy forwards Chris Simon, Ville
Nieminen and Marcus Nilson. "It's a dangerous combination:
goaltending and a team that's hungry because it hasn't made the
playoffs [in a long time]. It seems as if every year there's one
surprise team that jumps out. Who's to say it's not going to be
us?"

ATTRITION The two-month tournament, with each team playing an
intense game virtually every other night, starts exacting a toll
in the first round. In 2001 the Red Wings were up two games to
none on the seventh-seeded Kings but had lost captain Steve
Yzerman (broken left ankle) and star left wing Brendan Shanahan
(broken left foot) in Game 1. By Game 3 L.A. was exploiting those
absences and went on to take the series in six. Teams that enter
the playoffs with stars hobbled by injuries, such as Detroit
(goalie Curtis Joseph has a sprained right ankle) and the Toronto
Maple Leafs (winger Owen Nolan's right knee is ailing), look
vulnerable. And be wary of a favorite that had key players return
from long layoffs in the final days of the regular season, such
as the third-seeded Philadelphia Flyers, who got back center
Keith Primeau (concussion) and lead defenseman Eric Desjardins
(broken right arm) last week. Often it takes a recovering player
a few weeks to regain his form.

OVERTIME MOMENTUM Calgary left wing Martin Gelinas, who made
surprising runs to the finals with the Vancouver Canucks in 1994
and the Carolina Hurricanes in 2002, contends that the
emotion-driven playoffs are "all about momentum." If he's
right--and the Minnesota Wild's three straight wins, the last two
in overtime, to upset heavily favored Colorado in last year's
first round suggests he is--then OT games help start those
snowballs rolling. "If you're on the wrong side of an overtime
game, especially as a favorite, pressure seems to mount," says
Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock. "Overtime losses are huge momentum
busters." Detroit lost Game 1 of last year's opening round in
triple overtime and never came up for air against Anaheim, which
went 7-0 in playoff OT's.

COACHES AND SPIES An underdog might see an opponent seven times
in two weeks, and the advantage swings to a team with a scouting
staff that can quickly pinpoint weaknesses and a coach who can
exploit matchups and make swift adjustments to compensate for a
less formidable lineup. "I look at what [Minnesota coach Jacques
Lemaire] did with us," says Jim Dowd, a former Wild center whom
Montreal acquired at this year's trading deadline. "Besides
getting good matchups, he had us prepared for every situation."
On the flip side, coaching derailed the Canadiens in 2002, when a
foundering Michel Therrien used Bill Lindsay, a fourth-line
winger, for a face-off in overtime of Game 4 against Carolina.
The gaffe cost Montreal the series lead, the momentum and a
probable spot in the semifinals. While not as deep a thinker as
Lemaire, Flames coach Darryl Sutter has the same ability to get
players to buy into a system and perform within its guidelines
with a metronomic regularity, which further helps Calgary in an
almost formless first round.

"The first round is the most dangerous in sport," Hitchcock says.
"The levels of commitment and enthusiasm are the same for every
team. You see players who haven't played tough for a large part
of the season suddenly playing tough for two weeks. You see teams
pour everything into that series."

This is the joy of an NHL spring. You get to watch the top seeds
get planted.

COLOR PHOTO: KEVIN LARKIN/AP 1995: RANGERS (8TH SEED) OVER NORDIQUES (1) COLOR PHOTO: BOB BURDICK/REUTERS '98: OILERS (7) OVER AVS (2) COLOR PHOTO: MARK J. TERRILL/AP 2001: KINGS (7) OVER RED WINGS (2) COLOR PHOTO: TOM OLMSCHEID/AP '03: WILD (6) OVER AVS (3) COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF MCINTOSH/AP 2004 Will goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff lead sixth-seeded Calgary overNo. 3 Vancouver?

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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