Sports Hockey

Still waiting for a beast from the East


Somewhere in the Eastern Conference a contender for the Stanley Cup soon will emerge. The question is: Which one?

For a moment or so last week, the Philadelphia Flyers looked like potential champions. Then their series with the New Jersey Devils began and not only have they not looked like champions, they haven't looked like they'll survive the second round of the playoffs.

Based on their regular-season record, the New York Rangers would fit the bill as a logical team to make it to the final round. But the Rangers were life, death and Henrik Lundqvist to get past the Ottawa Senators in Round 1, and have been outplayed by the plucky Washington Capitals in two of three games thus far in the second round, which New York leads 2-1.

There are not, to date, any Los Angeles Kings-style teams of dominance in the East, which by itself sounds funny. The Kings were not themselves all season long, trying to figure out how to score and get into the playoffs, while firing their coach, making major changes, and trying to keep the general manager from tearing everything apart. Before now, it was kind of frantic.

And all the Kings have done is this: They've won seven of eight during the post-season. Most of them easily. Their games against the St. Louis Blues have been so one-sided they don't even seem playoff-like.

There has yet to be anything resembling a Los Angeles sighting in the East.

The surprise of this round probably has been New Jersey, partly because underrating the Devils is historical, partly because the better players on this team are far better than most give them credit for being, partly because they're winning games with goalie Martin Brodeur at the end of the line and barely hanging on, and because they have a coach in Pete DeBoer who, it seems, is so nondescript or non-controversial that he sometimes gets lost in all the Eastern Conference talk.

There is a certain edge and mystery to Flyers coach Peter Laviolette. The Rangers' John Tortorella was born nasty. Dale Hunter of the Capitals gives you that look and you know it comes from a guy who would "Pierre Turgeon" you at a moment's notice. And then there's DeBoer, who has transformed Ilya Kovalchuk into a complete player without any of the controversy of Hunter and Alex Ovechkin, who puts out his goonie boys to fight the Rangers goonie boys and doesn't get vilified for it, who has pushed all the right buttons with his surprising group that appears to be coming together at the right time.

Rating the four Eastern Conference teams as of today I'd go: 1. Devils; 2. Rangers; 3. Capitals; 4. Flyers.

That's today. By Saturday afternoon, everything could change. And by Sunday night, when the Devils and Flyers meet at the Prudential Center, it could change again.

At the beginning of the round, I would have gone: 1. Flyers; 2. Rangers; 3. Devils; 4. Capitals. The opening is there for some team. All it has to do is grab it.

The Flyers looked like that team coming off their first-round mastery of the Pittsburgh Penguins. They played with incredible force, energy and speed, with an offence that came at the Penguins in waves. They looked, frankly, unstoppable. They haven't looked anything like the same team against the Devils, which is partially of their own doing but a lot to do with the surprising strength and depth and talent of the Devils.

In the first round, Laviolette called Flyers forward Claude Giroux "the best player in the world." In this round, if he was making that statement he might be talking about Kovalchuk or Zach Parise. Giroux has hardly been a factor through three games. The Flyers need him, and about half-dozen other players, to step up Sunday in New Jersey.

Saturday may be Washington's last legitimate chance to advance. The Caps were the better team in the first round against Boston and have been the better team against the Rangers. Part of their strength in the playoffs has been the performance of their lesser players. They outwork their opponents but have difficulty cashing in on scoring chances -- which is almost the opposite of the previous Ovechkin teams. To advance, they have to start winning at home.

Tortorella believes the big overtime win over Washington is the kind of team-building victory that leads to better things. Coaches always play that game -- the building toward the Stanley Cup final.

This is all we can tell you about the Eastern Conference: One of these teams will play for the Stanley Cup.