Some shortcomings less subtle than others

Updated: March 11, 2004, 6:54 PM ET
By Chris Stevenson | Special to ESPN.com

So NHL trade deadline day (aka. New York Rangers Day at La Guardia) has finally passed and now everybody in Toronto can rest easy with the knowledge they went out and got that veteran center. Yup, Chad Kilger is on hand if needed.

Has there been a year when the Eastern Conference contenders have been harder to separate than the gravy from the fries at the Bell Centre in Montreal? Things only got tighter after the trade deadline as the Eastern Conference teams loaded up like Vladimir Krutov with three hands at an all-you-can eat buffet.

Is there a clear favorite?

Hardly. The picture is as messy as Daniel Alfredsson's coif on a bad hair day.

The wonderful thing in looking at the contenders in the East this time around is every one of them has a question mark the size of gaps in the Washington Capitals lineup. That's what makes this year's march towards the playoffs so interesting.

Here's a look at the fatal flaws among the current Eastern Conference contenders:

Tampa Bay Lightning
IN: D Stan Neckar
FATAL FLAW: OK, so maybe it's not fatal, but it really could hurt a lot. The Lightning are first overall for a bunch of reasons, namely the most underrated blue line in the league, two solid scoring lines and an energy level that would make Pierre McGuire look like he's on Prozac. But do you really think their goaltending is going to get it done? Nikolai Khabibulin got himself yanked in the playoffs last year and John Grahame is 0-1 lifetime in the postseason.

Ottawa Senators
IN: D Todd Simpson, W Rob Ray, F Peter Bondra, D Greg de Vries.
OUT: D Karel Rachunek, D Shane Hnidy
FATAL FLAW: After looking like he had a turned a corner in the last two postseasons, goaltender Patrick Lalime has been doing a pretty fair impression of Damian Rhodes this regular season. A goaltending controversy is brewing in Ottawa after they failed to land Washington's Olaf Kolzig at the trade deadline. Senators management had said it was Lalime come hell or high goals-against average, but now GM John Muckler said maybe the time has come to give Martin Prusek a chance. Prusek next minute in the playoffs will be his first.

Toronto Maple Leafs
IN: D Brian Leetch, C Ron Francis, D Calle Johansson, F Chad Kilger
FATAL FLAW: Goaltender Ed Belfour has a back that's as cranky as he is. The weight of Toronto's 36-year Stanley Cup drought is squarely on Belfour's shoulders, which is quite a load for a guy who is going to turn 39 during the first round. His back hasn't shown it's capable of standing up to regular-season play, never mind the grind of a game every other night between April and June. You want to put your money on Trevor Kidd or Mikael Tellqvist?

Philadelphia Flyers
IN: G Sean Burke, D Vladimir Malakhov
FATAL FLAW: Bob Clarke's blind spot. It's where goalies go to do their mediocre thing in the postseason (Garth Snow, John Vanbiesbrouck, Roman Cechmanek). Robert Esche is 1-0 in the playoffs, which is encouraging. Clarke brought Sean Burke back for another Flyers go-round, giving him a chance to improve on his 1-4 playoff mark with the Flyers in '97-98. Nine of Burke's 12 postseason wins came in his rookie season in 1987-88. That just sounds like a long time ago, right?

New Jersey Devils
IN: C Viktor Kozlov, C Jan Hrdina
OUT: C Michael Rupp
FATAL FLAW: History. The Devils have won three Stanley Cups, but never two in a row. They came close to defending their title in 2001 when they lost in seven games to Ray Bourque and the Colorado Avalanche. History is not on the Devils' side, but neither is a power play or captain Scott Stevens. The Devils have the worst power play among playoff-bound teams in the East at 20th in the league (15.5 percent). The power play was a huge key to them winning the Cup last year, as they scored a playoff-best 10 power-play goals at home (20.4 percent). It's working at just a 14.8 percent efficiency at home this year. Without Stevens, the Devils are missing their soul.

Boston Bruins
IN: D Sergei Gonchar, D Andy Delmore, C Michael Nylander, F Brad Boyes
OUT: D Jeff Jillson
FATAL FLAW: The bottom line is the Bruins have won one playoff round in the last nine years mostly because they have utilized second-tier goaltenders who usually produce second-tier goaltending (you could argue they haven't gotten first-class puck stopping since Andy Moog took them to the final in 1990. Since Moog left: Jon Casey, Vincent Riendeau, Craig Billington, Blaine Lacher, Bill Ranford, Byron Dafoe, Jeff Hackett and Steve Shields have combined for a 19-33 postseason record). Guess if you want to put a positive spin on it, rookie Andrew Raycroft can't be worse, right?

Montreal Canadiens
IN: F Alexei Kovalev, C Jim Dowd
OUT: C Chad Kilger
FATAL FLAW: The bar wasn't set very high for this club, which is to say it was set at about the same height as most of its forwards. The Habs did get a little bigger up front with the addition of Kovalev and Dowd, but do they have a group that can survive in the meat grinder that is May? G Jose Theodore has bounced back after an off-year last season. He could win a round on his own. The management tandem of GM Bob Gainey and coach Claude Julien have given the team structure and a work ethic better than it's had in years. When you've got a bunch of guys under six feet, it doesn't take long for your playoff hopes to go six feet under.

New York Islanders
IN: D Alexander Karpovtsev, F Steve Webb
FATAL FLAW: You're kidding right? They're the Islanders.  

 

Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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