- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2002

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has to be one very unhappy guy. His league's five most famous players Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Eric Lindros, Mark Messier and Pavel Bure all missed the playoffs after the NHL limped through its lowest-scoring season since the first Eisenhower Administration. Regular season television ratings remained anemic. And the most publicity the NHL generated this year a rare Sports Illustrated cover was from the tragic death of a teen-age girl who was struck in the head by a puck that flew into the stands during a game in Columbus.
But at least Bettman figured to enjoy a postseason with the trio of Boston, Chicago and Montreal all involved for the first time since 1996 and fellow Original Six franchise Detroit seemingly destined for a third Stanley Cup title in six years after racking up a league-high 116 points.
However, less than a week into the playoffs, Bettman's nightmarish season continues. The Red Wings, coached by the incomparable Scotty Bowman and featuring such Hall of Fame locks as Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman, Dominik Hasek, Chris Chelios and Luc Robitaille, lost their first two home games to Vancouver, the Western Conference's eighth seed. Only a botched play by Canucks goalie Dan Cloutier on a shot by Nicklas Lidstrom gave Detroit the lead heading into the third period of what would prove to be a 3-1 victory on Sunday night.
Vancouver still leads the best-of-7 series 2-1 heading into Game 4 tonight in British Columbia. Meanwhile, Toronto leads the New York Islanders 2-0 heading into Game 3 tonight on Long Island, while Montreal had grabbed the home-ice advantage from Boston with the series tied 1-1 before Game 3 tonight in Quebec and Ottawa had done the same from Philadelphia with the series deadlocked before Game 3 last night in Ontario.
In sum, that meant the NHL was looking at all four Canadian playoff teams advancing to the second round along with defending champion Colorado (which led Los Angeles 2-0 before Game 3 last night), 2001 Western Conference finalist St. Louis (which leads Chicago 2-1) and the hockey-challenged markets of Carolina (which leads New Jersey 2-1) and Phoenix (which was tied with San Jose before Game 3 last night).
If interest in the United States in the NHL during the past seven straight Cup finals between American-based teams was low at times, imagine how few TVs south of the border would tune in to a Canucks-Senators matchup in the first all-Canadian final since 1989.
Of course, this conjecture is based on home-ice advantage meaning something. Before last night, home teams were 8-11. This follows last year's 43-43 record and makes home teams just a collective plus-29 dating back to 1995. That compares to a plus-112 during the eight previous seasons of the best-of-seven format. In other words, home-ice advantage one of the chief reasons teams battle so hard all season is a thing of the past.
Shutouts aren't. The Blues' Brent Johnson whitewashed the Blackhawks for the second straight game on Sunday, making it six shutouts in 19 contests. That's without one by Avalanche superstar Patrick Roy, who had four of his playoff-record 19 last spring. Goalies recorded six shutouts in the first 18 games last year en route to a playoff-record 19.
At least Bettman can take some solace in goal scoring being up (a combined 4.58 a game) compared to 4.06 through the first 18 playoff games last April. And where only Colorado's Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg and Toronto's Mats Sundin averaged better than a point a game in last year's playoffs, 11 players led by Forsberg in his remarkable comeback from last May's splenectomy were doing so this spring before last night.


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