- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

Goalies Brent Johnson and Patrick Lalime had combined to start five NHL playoff games before last month and had lost them all. However as the conference semifinals began last night, St. Louis' Johnson and Ottawa's Lalime were perhaps the two biggest surprises in what already has been a wild postseason.

Johnson, who blanked Chicago in three straight games in the first round, and Lalime, who did the same to Philadelphia, are just one shutout away from tying the record for a playoff year established by all-time greats like Terry Sawchuk, Ken Dryden, Bernie Parent and Patrick Roy. That's amazing for a couple of goalies in their first (Johnson) and second (Lalime) years as NHL regulars.

But then not much has gone as predicted, especially in the Eastern Conference, where eighth-seeded Montreal ousted top-seeded Boston in six games for the right to meet No.3 Carolina. The seventh-seeded Senators disposed of the second-seeded Flyers in five games.

Carolina, seeded third only because of its Southeast Division title, had the fewest points of any playoff team before knocking off two-time defending conference champion New Jersey in six games. Only Toronto's triumph over the upstart New York Islanders was expected, and the Maple Leafs were extended to a Game7 before earning a matchup with the Senators.

"It's great for hockey," said Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee. "Montreal was playing so well heading into the playoffs, and Boston had sort of taken its foot off the gas. Ottawa has great speed and plays so well defensively, and Philadelphia struggled down the stretch.

"Midway through that series and the Carolina-New Jersey series, I think the supposed underdogs realized they belonged," McPhee continued. "Carolina has improved from last year [when it lost to New Jersey 4-2 in the first round], and the Devils [the ninth of the past 10 Eastern champions to fail to repeat] aren't as good as they were the past couple of years."

Still, the Hurricanes hadn't won a playoff series since 1987, when they were the Hartford Whalers. The Senators also had won just one series and had managed a pathetic three goals in last year's first-round loss to the Leafs, who last reached the finals in 1967. Montreal, the NHL's dominant franchise, had ended just one series on the winning side of the handshakes since capturing its 24th Stanley Cup in 1993.

And although the West's top four seeds Detroit, defending champion Colorado, San Jose and St. Louis all advanced, the mighty Red Wings had to rally past No.8 Vancouver after losing the first two games at home, and No.7 Los Angeles pushed the Avalanche to seven games. Detroit now faces St. Louis while Colorado meets San Jose.

"There's so little that separates teams nowadays that I'm not surprised by what has happened so far," McPhee said. "If you can get in the playoffs and win the first round, things can really open up for you."

McPhee knows that first-hand. In 1998, the fourth-seeded Caps beat the Bruins in the first round while the three teams seeded ahead of them the Devils, Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins were upset. Washington, suddenly the Eastern favorite, went on to beat Ottawa and Buffalo to advance to its lone Stanley Cup final.

Back then, the Caps' Olie Kolzig was the hot goalie. Now it's Johnson and Lalime stoning the opposition and stealing headlines from Hall of Fame-caliber goalies like Roy, Detroit's Dominik Hasek and New Jersey's Martin Brodeur.

Lalime's goals-against average against the Flyers was 0.38 and his save percentage .985, both absurd numbers. Johnson had a 1.00 goals-against in the Chicago series with a .959 save percentage. The latter was topped by the .964 of Hurricanes journeyman Kevin Weekes, who has been with five teams the past five years but had never before been in a playoff series.

All told, there were 14 shutouts in 44 first-round games. The postseason record is 19, set last spring in 86 games. The shutout mark being shattered is about the only thing predictable about a postseason in which four of the six players with a league-high four goals (the Bruins' Bill Guerin and Brian Rolston, the Kings' Ziggy Palffy and the Islanders' Kip Miller) are done and one of the others (the Canadiens' Richard Zednik) is questionable after being hospitalized following a Game5 cheap shot courtesy of Boston's Kyle McLaren. That makes Toronto's Alexander Mogilny the only one with four goals sure to keep playing.

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