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Eastern Conference Preview, Part II...By Ron "Rink Rat" Steel

The previous article dealt with the big thunder in the NHL`s Eastern Conference: Ottawa, New Jersey, Tampa, and Philadelphia, the top four seeds. Now is the turn of the last four playoff spots. Toronto Maple Leafs Second Northeast Division 44-28-7-3 98pts. GF 236- GA208 Lost in First Round to Philadelphia 4-3

The Rat thinks Toronto Maple Leafs will wheeze into fifth. The Leafs are old. If Detroit can be compared to the Egyptian pyramids then Toronto is the Laurentian Shield. Nine forwards are over 30 and two of them are 37. This team was bailed out by the unexpected performance of goaltender Eddie Belfour. Dallas` Marty Turco was the league`s save percentage leader with a .932 mark while handling 25.5 shots/game. Belfour was .922 on roughly 30 shots per night. Compare the Stars` top defencemen (Hatcher, Matvichuk, Sydor) of last year with the Leafs` blue line and Belfour outplayed Turco. Belfour is 38 and banking on another stellar performance could be asking too much. Besides age, there are two other potential time bombs: Leafs front office remains a viper`s pit, and the effect on their dressing room of having Joe Nieuwendyk and Bryan Marchment on the same team. Amongst the heavy breathers in management, Dave hates Pat, who hates Richie, who can`t stand anybody. Now there i! s J. Ferguson Jr., and the rush is on to fill his head with nonsense. Speculation is J. is under the influence of Pat. When seen in a group none of them look happy. As for Marchment he has on at least two occasions torn up one of Nieuwendyk`s knees. Marchment tries to injure players and after sidelining Nieuwendyk had the gracelessness to taunt the injured centre. Let the soap opera begin. Boston Bruins Third, Northeast Division 36-31-6-4 87pts. 245-237 Lost in First Round to New Jersey 4-1

Boston Bruins have lost patience with goaltenders regularly over the past couple of years. Gone are Byron Dafoe, Steve Shields, and John Grahame. Of course management`s final decision was correct - none were much good. Additionally, Andrew Raycroft bounced between Boston and the minors with the frequency of a commuter jet. Now he is the back-up. The starter, because of another astute decision, is Felix Potvin. He who has mastered the art of conceding a goal on the game`s first shot will now showcase his talent in Boston. Let the excuses begin. On the other hand the Bruins have one of the game`s top players in centre Joe Thornton. Along with scorers Glen Murray, Mike Knuble, Brian Rolston, and Sergei Samsonov, add defenceman Dan McGillis. Boston scored 245 goals last season and will likely have to improve on the total because you-know-who is in the nets. Bruins over the years have had a fetish for inexperienced coaches. Gerry Cheevers, Butch Goring, Terry O`Reilly, Steve! Kasper; now add Mike Sullivan. His coaching career stretches across 71 games. Total. Buffalo Sabres Fifth, Northeast Division 27-37-10-8 72pts. 190-219 Missed Playoffs

The Sabres have been standing still because of ownership woes. Now resolved, this team, in the Rat`s opinion, will take the seventh spot. Buffalo completed two useful trades, bringing in centres Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. Winger Miroslav Satan (26-49-75) has re-signed now that training camp is over. Defenceman Jay McKee is back , too. Andy Delmore has been added to the back end, and he doesn`t come as a defender. This team looks good to hit more than last year`s 190 goals. Additionally, the team has a good coach. Lindy Ruff starts his seventh season. He appeared to be the one holding his team together last season and after the trade deadline brought in Briere his players produced a 6-4-1 run.

New York Rangers Fourth, Atlantic Division 32-36-10-4 78pts. 210-231 Missed Playoffs

The Rangers are picked every year to make the post-season and they have consistently delivered - six consecutive years out of the playoffs. The Rat is nothing if not a creature of habit. This year gm Glen Sather has eliminated the summer ritual of hiring a coach and taken the job for himself. Up till now no-one had a clue what type of team he was building, other than expensive. Perhaps the signing of defenceman Greg deVries signals a shift towards lowering their goals against average - 2.78 or roughly 25 goals too high. Goaltender Dan Blackburn was the hardest working kid since the little fella in the Charles Dickens novel. Mike Dunham should now assume the first choice roll, giving the Rangers goaltending competent enough for a play-off spot but nothing more. Interesting about Dunham - he has been sniveling through September because of the goaltender pad rule changes. Speaks to his attitude. Eric Lindros played 81 games last season, his most since 1995/96 (73). Perhaps! this will be the year he finally puts his multiple concussions behind him. Speaking of putting matters behind, the Rangers still haven`t the stomach to force Mark Messier (42) to retire.

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