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Competitive balance puts brooms in the closet

by John Kreiser

Penguin big gun, Evgeni Malkin, ended the regular season second in the league in points with 106. Evgeni Malkin highlights
Where have all the sweeps gone?

Pittsburgh's 4-0 wipeout of the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals has become far more the exception than the rule. With only one first-round sweep possible this season, it means there have been just four in the last six playoff seasons (beginning in 2002), with no more than one in any year.

In contrast, the three seasons from 1999 to 2001 saw seven first-round sweeps -- three in 1999 and two in 2000 and 2001.

In all, the Penguins' sweep was just the 15th in 112 first-round series (including this year) since the current playoff format was adopted in 1994.

Part of the reason for the Penguins' success was that their big guns produced. Sidney Crosby (2-6-8) and Evgeni Malkin (2-5-7) combined for more points than the entire Ottawa team, which scored five goals and managed just 14 points -- including only two assists from their big line of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson (who missed the first two games with injuries).

Hot teams cool quickly -- Your favorite team ended the regular season on a roll. Should you be excited about its Stanley Cup hopes?

Probably not.

Since the current playoff format was adopted in 1994, no Stanley Cup winner has gotten more than 15 points or won more than seven of its last 10 games. The New York Rangers went 7-2-1 in their last 10 in 1993-94, and New Jersey got 15 points in 2002-03 by going 5-0-4-1. Last year's winners, the Anaheim Ducks, were 5-3-2 in their last 10.

That's not good news for teams like Montreal, which closed with an 8-1-1 run for 17 points, or Washington, the NHL's hottest team down the stretch with a 9-1-0 record and 18 points in its final 10 games. The Canadiens lost Thursday, but still lead their series with Boston 3-2; Washington, down 3-1 to the Flyers, will try to avoid elimination against Philadelphia on Saturday.

While the last 13 Cup winners generally haven't closed the season on a tear, neither have they really struggled down the stretch. Only the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings (1-3-4-2) played sub-.500 hockey in their last 10 games. Every other title team had between 10 and 13 points out of the possible 20.

Losing finalists generally have followed the same path. Since 1994, the lone finalist to play sub-.500 hockey in its last 10 games was the 1995-96 Florida Panthers, who were 3-6-1. Everyone else had between 10 and 13 points except the 2000-01 Devils, who were 8-2-0 in their last 10 (and 19-2-0 in their last 21). The Devils carried their late surge into the Final, but lost Games 6 and 7 to Colorado.

Calgarys' Curtis Joseph became the first goaltender to win a playoff game with five different teams.
The Devils have had the best 10-game finish in the NHL three times in the last six seasons, but have nothing to show for them. They were 8-2-0 in 2000-01 and again in 2001-02, when they lost in the first round to Carolina. They closed 2005-06 on a 11-0 run and actually extended the streak to 15 with a first-round sweep of the Rangers, then lost to Carolina in the second round.

In fact, of the seven teams that have won eight or more of their last 10 games during the last six seasons, the 2000-01 Devils were the only ones to get as far as the Final. More typical is the performance of Detroit and San Jose in 2005-06: Both went 8-1-1 but went out early -- Detroit in the first round to Edmonton, San Jose in the second round to Calgary.

Wrong number -- Calgary became only the third team in the expansion era to take just 10 shots on goal in a playoff game. The Flames were outshot 32-10 in Tuesday's 3-2 loss to San Jose -- a game they led with less than five minutes to play. The other two teams that had just 10 shots in a playoff game both won: New Jersey beat Washington 2-1 on April 9, 1990, and Chicago blanked Los Angeles 1-0 on April 13, 1974.

The only team to have fewer than 10 shots in a playoff game was Toronto, which managed just six in a 3-0 loss to New Jersey on May 8, 2000.

Working overtime -- Minnesota and Colorado became only the second teams in 57 years to play overtime in the first three games of their series, and the first since Edmonton and Los Angeles did it in 1991. Colorado's 5-1 victory in Game 4 ensured that the Wild and Avs won't tie the record set by Toronto and Montreal in the 1951 Final, when all five games were decided in OT -- with Toronto winning four and the Cup.

In the groove -- For all his playoff brilliance, Martin Brodeur has never done well in playoff overtime. But he's riding the best OT playoff streak of his career. New Jersey's 4-3 OT win at New York on Sunday was his third in a row, the longest streak of his career. Brodeur is 84-54 in playoff games decided in regulation entering Game 5 of the Devils' series with the Rangers tonight, but even with three straight wins, he's just 11-19 in OT.

They've been around -- Curtis Joseph and Bryan Smolinski achieved playoff marks this week that attest to their skill and longevity -- and indicate that they've toured a number of NHL cities.

Joseph got the win in relief Sunday when Calgary rallied for a 4-3 victory against San Jose, becoming the first goaltender to earn playoff victories for five teams. He broke a tie with Andy Moog, who won playoff games for four teams -- and, unlike Joseph, did win a Stanley Cup.

Smolinski scored a playoff goal for his fifth team when he connected in the opener of Montreal's first-round series with Boston. He joined Mike Sillinger, now with the New York Islanders, and retired star Doug Gilmour as the only players to score a playoff goal with five teams.
A first -- The Montreal Canadiens have tortured the Boston Bruins in the playoffs, beating them 23 times in 30 series. So the Bruins had to feel good after Thursday night's 5-1 win at Montreal that extended their first-round series to a sixth game on Saturday at Boston. The victory marked the first time in a seven-game series against Montreal that the Bruins had won Game 5 to avoid elimination. The Canadiens had won all six times when leading 3-1 in the series.

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