It's anybody's Cup

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:50 AM ET

So many teams, so little to choose between them.

If these were female athletes, I'd feel a little like Hugh Hefner, having to pick just one or two.

Oops, sorry about that. We'll leave those thoughts to our mayor.

Alas, I'm just a sportswriter, charged with picking winners in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That's no easy task.

Just look at the Western Conference, where a mere eight points separated third place from eighth. There's more space between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, for crying out loud.

It's not much clearer in the East.

The Detroit Red Wings notwithstanding, it seems a by-product of the new NHL is a level of parity we haven't seen in years.

This calls for some inside information. Who better to help out than two of Manitoba's top hockey minds?

Andy Murray and Barry Trotz were two of the NHL's longest-serving head coaches until Murray was dumped by the Los Angeles Kings a few weeks back.

Yesterday, they were both preparing for the playoffs: Murray in Calgary as a TV analyst, Trotz in Nashville for the Predators Round 1 series against San Jose.

Thing is, they don't have a clue who's going to win this thing, either.

"I don't think I've ever seen it like this," Murray said. "At the end of the season, the regular-season races were more intense than I've ever seen them. It's going to be exciting. There are 16 teams that have a chance to win it."

Gee, thanks for clearing that up, coach.

Oh, Murray will tell you, like everyone else, that Detroit is the team to beat in the West.

Beyond that, flip a loonie.

"It's difficult to handicap 'em," Murray said. "Dallas finishes second and their reward is they get Colorado in the first round. Dallas and Colorado have had some epic battles."

Nashville and San Jose? The Preds won five more games during the season, but the Sharks are one of the hottest teams in the league with eight straight wins.

The series Murray is working, Anaheim-Calgary, features one goalie who led his team to the Cup final in '03 (J. S. Giguere, Mighty Ducks) and another who reached the final in '04 (Miikka Kiprusoff, Flames).

Aside from that, the teams couldn't be more different.

"It's a question of speed and skill (Anaheim) versus grit and physicality (Calgary)," Murray said.

In the past, you'd always pick the grit.

But this is the new NHL, remember?

"The game will probably be a little bit more open because of the rules," Murray said. "But still, that playoff grit and physicality and determination are going to be so important. When you're playing that many games in a short period of time, one of the teams is going to get worn down a bit. And it's better to be the one giving than receiving."

Trotz is no better than Murray at providing insight into the West race. Aside from hoping his Preds are right in it.

"It is hard, even as a coach, to say who's going to win it," Trotz said. "There's so many teams that are a lot closer than you think. The point totals, disregard them. It's what teams are playing well, what teams aren't."

If it comes down to goaltending, then the East favourite has nothing to do with the top seed.

"(Martin) Brodeur has to be the No. 1 guy," Murray said. "That's why you have to like New Jersey. Ottawa's got some question marks because of that."

The majority of the East's goalies are more raw than an Italian steak.

So where does it all lead?

Trotz will predict one thing: the two top seeds won't meet in the Cup final.

"They rarely do," he said. "There's going to be a new hero this year. I don't know who it's going to be."

Neither do we, but here goes.

Dallas and Carolina in the final.


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