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Tonight's playoff previews

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2001


Eastern conference

WHO: Devils (No. 1 seed) vs. Hurricanes (8).

RECORDS: New Jersey -- 48-19-12-3; Carolina 38-32-9-3.

SEASON SERIES: Devils 2-1-1.

THE LOWDOWN: Free from injuries and with sharpshooters Patrik Elias and Alexander Mogilny at the top of their games, the Devils won the conference with a team-record 111 points and a league-best 295 goals. Goaltender Martin Brodeur was, well, Brodeur, and a punishing defense was one of the league's best. The Hurricanes have five 20-goal scorers and a defense led by Sandis Ozolinsh and Dave Tanabe that created opportunities and got ironman goaltending from Arturs Irbe.

KEYS TO VICTORY: New Jersey -- Play the disciplined style that created the league's largest goal differential (100); keep the league's No. 1 power play (22.9 percent efficiency) rolling. Carolina -- Hope the defending Stanley Cup champions are overconfident.

DAMIAN CRISTODERO'S PREDICTION: Devils in four.

WHO: Capitals (3) vs. Penguins (6).

RECORDS: Washington -- 41-27-10-4; Pittsburgh -- 42-28-9-3.

SEASON SERIES: 2-2.

THE LOWDOWN: Goaltender Olaf Kolzig is a great equalizer, and Peter Bondra always is a threat. But Washington was 4-7-0-2 to close the season and 1-4-0-2 against playoff teams. The Penguins were also-rans until Mario Lemieux returned, which, no surprise, was when Jaromir Jagr came alive. Pittsburgh has major firepower but a rookie goaltender in Johan Hedberg.

KEYS TO VICTORY: Washington -- Stand-on-his head play from Kolzig; more offense from Trevor Linden and Dainius Zubris, who were acquired from Montreal to give the second line a boost. Pittsburgh -- Hedberg must not wilt under his first playoff pressure; the second line -- Martin Straka, Alexei Kovalev and Robert Lang -- must take some of the pressure off Lemieux and Jagr.

CRISTODERO'S PREDICTION: Penguins in six.

Western conference

WHO: Avalanche (1) vs. Canucks (8).

RECORDS: Colorado -- 52-16-10-4; Vancouver -- 36-28-11-7.

SEASON SERIES: Avalanche 3-2.

THE LOWDOWN: Much is made of the Avalanche's offense, but it is the defense, led by Ray Bourque (questionable for tonight's opener because of a lower back strain), Rob Blake and Adam Foote, that keyed the run to the Presidents Cup. The team has no apparent weaknesses and a huge strength in goaltender Patrick Roy. Vancouver won just two of its final 17 games. Losing captain and top scorer Markus Naslund to a broken leg and No. 2 scorer Andrew Cassels to a sprained ankle broke Vancouver's spirit.

KEYS TO VICTORY: Colorado -- Stay focused; ride the league's No. 3 power play, which also is No. 1 on the road (24.4 percent). Vancouver -- Either Dan Cloutier or Bob Essensa must play at another level in net; crank up the aggressiveness on the penalty kill.

CRISTODERO'S PREDICTION: Avalanche in five.

WHO: Blues (4) vs. Sharks (5).

RECORDS: St. Louis -- 43-22-12-5; San Jose -- 40-27-12-3.

SEASON SERIES: 2-2.

THE LOWDOWN: The Blues lost Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis and Pavol Demitra for long stretches, and neither Roman Turek nor rookie Brent Johnson could win the No. 1 goaltending job. St. Louis has not beaten a team over .500 since February. The Sharks reasserted themselves by winning three of their last four after a horrible March. Getting Vincent Damphousse back from a shoulder injury is a big plus.

KEYS TO VICTORY: St. Louis -- Get Pronger, MacInnis and Demitra back into form; goaltending must be more consistent. San Jose -- Give rookie goaltender Evgeni Nabokov as much help as possible; crank up the league's best road penalty kill unit (88.9 percent); Teemu Selanne must get hot.

CRISTODERO'S PREDICTION: Blues in six.

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