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March Mania - The Stretch Drive for the Postseason
By Mike Haggett
Published March 3, 2004

 

For the loud and proud hockey fans around the northern hemisphere, March not only signifies longer days and the hint of spring in the air that awaits us, but for some the anticipation of the hometown team making a run for the post season. Regardless of the level of hockey one is interested, the suspense at times is too much to bear. Every shift, every shot and every deflection could be the difference of whether the favorite club moves on for a chance to play for a league title, or for some, the unfortunate prospect of packing it in for another year.

I think of myself of being a true fan of the game without a particular preference of an NHL team favorite. I look in between the lines at the interesting situation going on in the Western Conference with the idea of the Nashville Predators making a bid for their first postseason appearance. That may just be the feel good story of the season. David Poile, Barry Trotz and Company have put something together that might not only make the postseason, but could make for an interesting series pending on who they face. With the recent addition of Steve Sullivan from Chicago to help out offensively, the only questions left to answer will be if the team can play strong defensively and support Tomas Vokoun. Seems though the West always seems ripe for playoff upsets, and if they make it, the Predators may just be the team to do it.

Another story brewing out west is in Calgary as the Flames are back in the thick of the playoff chase for the first time since 1996. This is another team that might make waves if they earn a postseason bid. Between Jarome Iginla’s Hart trophy worthy season and Miika Kiprusoff’s stellar Vezina run, I wonder if this may be the Mighty Ducks of the 2004 playoffs. The Flames will no doubt need to have Shean Donovan, Martin Gelinas and Dean McAmmond step up offensively as Iginla will surely be well covered. The recent pick up of Ville Nieminen may prove to be the difference. If I was a betting man, I would have to give this club some thought in a possible first round upset. The Flames participation in the Stanley Cup playoffs is long overdue, and hopefully the club can give their faithful a solid showing down the stretch and gain a berth.

The Eastern Conference looks pretty straight forward, just a matter of where rather than who. The intriguing possible match ups are perennial favorites Montreal / Boston and Montreal / Toronto. Something about an Original Six playoff match-up to stoke the rivalry fire up a bit. Living near Boston, I certainly have my preference of what I would like to see. A Boston / Montreal opening round and a Montreal / Toronto second round are fascinating me. Let me just throw in my two cents and say that I can’t stand the fact that Toronto and Montreal are in the same conference. That is one of the biggest tragedies in today’s NHL in my opinion. The idea that the Habs and Leafs will never square off for Lord Stanley does a serious injustice to the game.

The prospects of an Ottawa / New York Islanders series should get the Citizen and Sun newspapers selling a few extra copies as well. If the Alexi Yashin story wasn’t thoroughly beaten to death when the Senators dealt him after the 2001 season, it will be during this series. With Ottawa’s home ice, I can almost hear the taunting chants now ringing their way through the Corel Centre. Good thing that if Ottawa faces New York, the Senators will likely make short order of the pesky Isles and send Yashin back across the pond for the summer. The Senators fans should get their licks in during the first two games on that one.

Being somewhat of a purist of the North American game, I truly appreciate the fact that Canadian based clubs make the post season. Hockey is after all, Canada’s game. Being from the States with that attitude has resulted in a more than a few glares from my fellow countrymen. I look at them and ask, “Who are you fooling?” Sure the game is improving on this side of the border, but get real here. The States will never be the #1 exporter of top notch hockey talent. Canadians should have the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate their game, and it is even better to see the markets in the Great White North playing a factor in the post season. It is most unfortunate in today’s economic climate of the NHL game that it isn’t more competitive and balanced for all the markets to have a legitimate shot at the playoffs over a reasonable amount of time.

With the impending lockout and the gloom and doom forecasted by the league office and the players association about any sort of agreement, I am looking at this postseason in a bittersweet tone. It is going to be different watching it this year with the cloud of uncertainty of the future. In the back of my mind will be the questions and concerns of the future of the game that I love. Therefore I watch and I quietly hope for resolution of the conflict. I know that I will not be alone. The future of the NHL game depends on it.

 

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