Stanley Cup tourney shows sport at best NHL's real season begins with tonight's faceoffs

April 16, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

For the next two months inside NHL dressing rooms stretching from Buffalo, N.Y., to Anaheim, Calif., the demand for painkillers, sutures, face shields, bandages and vials of ginseng extract will become more frequent.

On the periphery of the games, the howls for justice and the accusations of foul play will grow louder, and the secrecy surrounding injuries to key players will be tightened.

The Stanley Cup playoffs, the sporting world's most physically demanding tournament, will begin tonight with the openers of four Western Conference series. Tomorrow night, the Eastern Conference will lunge into action.

Sometime in mid-June -- June 17 at the latest -- the joyous champions will find salve for their wounds in the champagne they'll sip from an unsightly yet cherished silver cup originally valued at $50.

Can the Colorado Avalanche, still the league's deepest and most-talented team, become the first repeat champion since Pittsburgh in 1991-92?

Can the New Jersey Devils, Cup champions two years ago, become the first team to go the distance a year after missing the playoffs since Montreal did so in 1970?

Can Mario Lemieux, who has the best goals-per-game average in history, add one more dramatic line to his hard-luck career by single-handedly lifting the defensively weak Penguins past Eric Lindros and the Flyers? Or will Lindros hoist the Cup and end the angst of Philadelphia's fickle fans?

Can the aging Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky, both aching and with their skills eroding, summon the strength to postpone beach plans for Rangers faithful?

For the first time, Stanley Cup games will be played in Phoenix, where the temperature zooms above 100 degrees in June, and Anaheim, fueling more merchandising madness from Disney.

There is no clear-cut favorite because every team has leaks and none has the depth to survive key injuries, but it says here the Devils will be the last team standing by prevailing over the Avalanche in a fascinating seven-game final.

The lingering memory will be New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur embracing Colorado's Patrick Roy, his boyhood idol and one of the greatest clutch goalies in history, after the final game. Besides, Claude Lemieux can't win the Cup every year, can he?

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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