Real horse race for Cup

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:59 AM ET

A curious Jay Feaster opened up a Tampa-area newspaper recently and immediately became intrigued with a piece on playoff predictions.

Specifically, where were his Tampa Bay Lightning ranked?

The list of Stanley Cup "favourites" included the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings.

But no Lightning.

Then came a grouping entitled "contenders," the next tier of hopefuls that included the San Jose Sharks.

But no Lightning.

Finally there was a category called "also rans."

Here is where Feaster found his Lightning, who just happen to be the defending Stanley Cup champions.

What a slag.

Had a volatile general manager like a Mike Keenan or Brian Burke seen a similar shot at their respective teams, they would have snapped.

Not Feaster.

"Was I insulted? Not at all," Feaster said in a phone interview from Tampa. "We only squeezed into the post-season in the last couple of games.

"We're not going into this thing thinking 'We are the defending champs.' We're going into the playoffs saying 'we're just happy to be in.' "

Feaster dismissed the notion of "repeat." He doesn't feel it is applicable here.

Not when it's been two years since his team hoisted the Cup, thanks to that little thing known as the NHL lockout.

"A lot of time has gone by since then. That's why it's different," Feaster said.

"The season without hockey made it different. Our team is different.

"And, most importantly, the league is different."

Is it ever.

So much has changed since commissioner Gary Bettman handed the Cup to then-Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk almost 23 months ago.

With the implimentation of the salary cap, no longer can big-money teams simply gouge the market of top-name free agents by throwing gobs of cash at them.

With the crackdown on obstruction, no longer can clutch-and-grab teams simply waterski behind younger faster squads.

If the purpose of pulling the plug on the 2004-05 season was to create parity and a more wide-open game, mission accomplished.

"It has been such a tremendous season, and I really believe this is going to be a wide-open tournament for the Cup, the type we may have never seen before," Feaster said.

"It's good for the game and it's good for the league."

Many share Feaster's sentiments that the NHL is more competitive than ever.

That's what makes this 2006 Stanley Cup Derby so intriguing.

When the puck drops tonight to kick off the race for Stanley Cup glory, all 16 teams feel they have a legitimate chance to cross the finish line first.

"You can see what the CBA did," said forward Patrick Elias, a two-time Cup winner with the New Jersey Devils. "I think we are all aware that there is no one team that can just run away with it and that everybody has a chance."

When Derian Hatcher's Dallas Stars entered the 1999 playoffs, they were considered one of the overwhelming favourites. Sure enough, they held serve and won the only Cup in that franchise's history.

But the days of one or two teams dominating from start to finish like that, Hatcher figured, are likely over.

"Every teams thinks they have a shot,"said Hatcher, now a member of the Philadelphia Flyers. "Whoever ends up in the Stanley Cup final, it wouldn't really surprise me."

Keeping that in mind, let's look at the field that makes up the 2006 Cup Derby.

The pre-season favourites of many were the high-flying Ottawa Senators, who appeared to be the class of the league. They could score, they could skate and, should the opposition actually penetrate the Sens zone, future Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek was there to shut the door.

Now Hasek is out indefintely with a groin injury, leaving rookie Ray Emery to carry the load.

His first test comes against scoring studs Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards.

That's what you get for finishing atop the eastern conference in the "new" NHL.

A date with the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning, perhaps the most talented eighth seed to ever come out of the east.

"Even though we are the first seed and they are the eighth seed, we think it's going to be a very close series," said Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson, whose team won just three of its final 10 regular-season games. "They have a lot of guys who have been through the whole war and gone all the way."

Feaster is banking on his team's experience in 2004 to help his Lightning go deep into the post-season.

"I always believed, even as we bounced along through the season, that if we got into the playoffs the guys would know what it takes to go all the way because of what happened two years ago," Feaster said.

Scan the list of competitors in this Cup Derby, and you see that each entry has its share of warts.

The New York Rangers blew a shot at a division championship by dropping their final five games and looked very beatable when rookie goalie sensation Henrik Lundqvist was out of the lineup.

They'll meet the New Jersey Devils who, despite winning their final 11, don't have the two super Scotts -- Niedermayer and Stevens -- on the back end any more.

The Montreal Canadiens start rookie goalie Cristobal Huet against Carolina's Martin Gerber, who has all of two post-season starts.

The slow and experienced Philadelphia Flyers take on the young speedy Buffalo Sabres, a team whose goaltending tandem of Ryan Miller and Marty Biron have zero post-season games to its credit.

Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk is hurting, which has come as good news to the Edmonton Oilers, one of the league's most inconsistent teams.

Dallas Stars goalie Marty Turco has a number of post-season flops on his resume while his Colorado counterpart, Jose Theodore, was brutal at times this season.

Calgary has trouble scoring. So does Anaheim.There could be a few 1-0 games in this series.

Finally, the Nashville Predators, minus goalie Tomas Vokoun, face off against the San Jose Sharks and first year netminder Vesa Toskala.

As you scan through the remainder of the Toronto Sun's 2006 NHL playoff preview, you will see that we conducted our own rankings of the competitors in the Cup Derby.

The Red Wings finished on top, followed by the Devils, Sens and Flames.

But buyers -- or in this case, prognosticators -- beware, warns Sabres forward Chris Drury.

"We've never seen playoffs like the ones coming up,"Sabres forward Chris Drury said. "It's anybody's game."

Jay Feaster certainly hopes so.


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