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Western Conference Preview...By Ron "Rink Rat" Steel

The Rat thinks Ottawa will win this season`s Stanley Cup. The Western Conference final will be between Vancouver and Colorado, with the Canucks winning a thriller. Let`s begin. Top Seeds. Vancouver Canucks Second, Northwest Division 45-23-13-1 104pts. GF 264 - GA 208 Lost in second round to Minnesota Wild 4-3

The Canucks have 13 players on their 03/04 roster who, at the least, made appearances during the 00/01 season. At Christmas 2001 general manager Brian Burke reiterated his faith in his players and they responded with a sensational second half, making the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since 1996. Last spring they suffered the obligatory learning experience - blowing a 3-1 second round lead to the Minnesota Wild. Players are now chanting that they`ve learned all the lessons, matured sufficiently, now is the time, etc. etc. GM Burke isn`t so sure, which is why old sweat Mike Keene showed up for camp and won a job. Another four new players squeezed onto the roster - rookie Jason King, Magnus Arvedson (Ottawa), goaltender Johan Hedberg (Pittsburgh), and prodigal son Jiri Slegr. Once again second line scoring is a weakness. The playoffs proved beyond doubt this team has none. King is the Sedin twins` right winger and that combination has been effective in t! he preseason. The second round loss showed their panic threshold wasn`t high enough. The collapse against the Wild may serve a useful purpose yet if the Canucks can keep their heads this season. Finally, Dan Cloutier. The Canuck `keeper has fallen apart the last two playoff seasons. He had a decent regular season in 02/03 but never raised his save percentage above .908 - statistically he is an average goaltender. When camp opened, Cloutier didn`t appear happy having Johan Hedberg on the scene. Hedberg is thought of as a capable stopper but having been with the Penguins judging his play is difficult. He did have a sensational playoff run in 00/01 when he came out of nowhere (Manitoba Moose) to push the Pens to the Eastern Conference finals. He`s been living off that success since.

Detroit Red Wings First, Central Division 48-20-10-4 110pts. 269-203 Lost first round to Anaheim Ducks 4-0

Yes, yes, they are still old. And quite small too. The Wings have nine forwards listed as weighing less than 200 pounds and two of those are under 180. It might be fair to say this is really the first post-Scotty season. Sergei Federov was lost to free agency, Luc Robitaille was dumped, and Steve Yzerman wants to play right wing. Red Wings look thin at centre, Pavel Datsyuk and Jason Williams have to manufacture roughly 45 goals to overcome the loss of Federov and Yzerman`s side-ways shift. Winger Brendan Shanahan is now 34 and Bret Hull 39. Newcomer Ray Whitney will make some difference. Defensively, Detroit landed crunching blue-liner Derian Hatcher. Jiri Fischer returns from injury and there is the outstanding Nicklas Lidstrom. After that, bits and pieces. Of most interest is the congestion of eight million dollar players in goal. Curtis Joseph, last season`s playoff bust, will go. Dominik Hasek will surely throw off the rust sometime this season. Detroit has won the! ir division seven of the past 10 years, eight times in 11 years they`ve had 100 plus points. The Rat thinks this year will be different, the Wings not such an attractive team to watch. It`s possible that with diminished scoring and unsettled goaltending this team will trap hard, keep the games tight, and win ugly.

Dallas Stars First, Pacific Division 46-17-15-4 111pts. 245-169 Lost in second round to Anaheim Ducks 4-2

This Dallas team will look different from last season`s, and likely play differently too. Defenceman Hatcher walked, Darryl Sydor was traded, and a group of geezers were dumped. Then, inexplicably, two geezers were brought in to shore up their defence corps. Teppo Numminen (35) and pint-sized Don Sweeney (37) aren`t going to replace the robust play Hatcher and Sydor provided. Up front is unsettled too. A power forward is coming off a serious injury, another doesn`t play hard, and management hates one left winger. Bill Guerin is hard- nosed, occasionally dirty and can score. Last season he was hurt and produced only 25 goals. Jason Arnott is a huge forward, can skate, has a mean streak, and shoots bullets. So how come he`s never had 30 goals? How come he`s hit 60 points once? Then there is Pierre Turgeon. Management tried to off-load him and couldn`t. He`s greatly overpaid and lazy. The Stars can`t be blamed for the `lazy` bit. Dallas does have strengths. Mike Modano pla! ys his heart out, Brendan Morrow is good, and nippy Niko Kapanen had a fine rookie season. Then there is Marty Turco in goal. He was outstanding last season and will have to be this, which is likely. Looking at the other teams in this division, Dallas has more. Wild Card Colorado Avalanche First, Northwest Division 42-19-13-8 105pts. 251-194 Lost in first round to Minnesota Wild 4-3

Sure, Teemu Selanne, Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, and Joe Sakic and a return to 400 goals/season. Maybe it will happen. The Avalanche appear to be an oddly balanced team this season. There is that familiar offensive power but eight roster spots are occupied by five rookies, two knuckle-draggers, and defenceman Chris McAllister. Consider McAllister`s career figures: 255 games over eight years, five teams, 20 points, 560 penalty minutes. This man is no Greg deVries, who departed a free agent. Coach Tony Granato will be accused at some point of over-playing his stars, but who can blame him. Colorado`s forwards are small and their cornerstone players are ageing: Joe Sakic and Rob Blake are 34, Selanne 33, and Adam Foote 32. However the position which will draw the spotlight away from Kariya and Selanne is goal. Legendary Patrick Roy is gone and backup David Aebischer has been handed the job. He will shortly understand the pressure of big-time goaltending, a pressure Roy wor! e like a second skin. Aebischer has played 69 games the past three years, and last season wasn`t his best - a 7-12-0 record and 2.43 goals against - Roy`s average was 2.18

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