Young stars rule East, but top teams in Westby The Associated Press on Apr. 09, 2008, under Sports
The beef and brawn reign in the West. Back East is where the kids skate and play with abandon.
Including, of course, Alex The Great, who is ready for his coming out party. That is, if he and the Washington Capitals have anything left after racing for weeks just to get into the playoffs.
No story down the stretch was more compelling than Alex Ovechkin’s brilliant play which helped the Capitals erase a dismal first half that cost a coach a job and left the club just a step above last place.
Now it’s time for his postseason debut, which will take place Friday night in the nation’s capital against the Philadelphia Flyers. Behind Ovechkin’s offense, Washington chased down the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division title with an 11-1 finish.
“You don’t want to think too much about it,” Flyers goalie Martin Biron said of the 22-year-old Ovechkin, who led the NHL with 65 goals and 112 points. “There’s other guys on that team that definitely have been assets and can play the game well with Ovechkin.
“They get great energy from him, and what they accomplished at the end of the season was tremendous. It’s a big challenge. We’ll welcome the challenge.”
Sidney Crosby, edged for rookie of the year honors by Ovechkin two seasons ago, has the Pittsburgh Penguins playing postseason hockey for a second straight year. The first-round opponent is the same as 2007, but this time the second-seeded Penguins expect to have a lot more to dish out to the reeling Ottawa Senators.
Sid the Kid captured the scoring title and MVP honors last year, but the now 20-year-old captain and the Penguins were gone in five games. The Senators then advanced to the Stanley Cup finals.
Ottawa’s run ended against the Anaheim Ducks, back to defend their Cup title as the West’s No. 4 seed. They could repeat, but there will be plenty of obstacles before they think about who will get out of the East.
The rough road will start with a matchup with the Dallas Stars, a championship-caliber club that stumbled to the regular-season finish line. After completing a big trade that brought high-scoring forward Brad Richards to Dallas from Tampa Bay, the Stars went 6-8-2.
The Ducks boast a bruising lineup featuring hulking defenseman Chris Pronger and hard-shooting blue liner Francois Beauchemin. Up front, Anaheim also has size and strength with Todd Bertuzzi, Ryan Getzlaf and Rob Niedermayer.
That group also has plenty of skill, complemented by forward Teemu Selanne and defenseman Scott Niedermayer, who both cut short their early retirements to return at midseason for a shot at another ring.
This could be the time the San Jose Sharks finally stand in someone’s way and claim the championship many predicted for them again and again.
“It’s very much talked about in our locker room,” said forward Jeremy Roenick, in his first season with the Sharks. “From what I understand, the confidence is much greater than it had been in the past. The guys just feel this is a much more all-around, well-rounded team, and we feel much better about ourselves going into the playoffs.”
And with so much attention placed on San Jose, Anaheim and Dallas, it is easy to overlook the Detroit Red Wings – you know, the team with the best record in the NHL for the sixth time in 13 seasons.
With so many strong teams, there is widespread belief whoever survives in the West will roll over the East champion. Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock doesn’t buy it.
“One of the problems when you have so many good teams, that’s what is left of your team at the end of the three series that you have to play in isn’t much,” he said. “A lot of it depends on the damage that is done in some of these series.”
The Red Wings jumped to a huge lead and coasted to the finish with 115 points, seven more than the Sharks, who closed the regular season with an 18-2-2 spurt. Detroit will face Central Division foe Nashville in a best-of-seven series starting Thursday in Detroit.