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Hasek backstops Wings' Cup hopes

Ottawa Senators General Manager John Muckler must be shaking his head in disgust. The reason he signed Dominik Hasek last season was so the goaltender would lead the Senators into the playoffs. It ended when The Dominator suffered yet another groin injury in the 2006 Olympics.

Hasek vowed to retire before signing with another team, but his plans quickly changed when the Senators let him go and the Detroit Red Wings came calling. It was an ideal situation for both. The Wings needed a proven playoff goalie, and Hasek needed another opportunity to win the Stanley Cup.

The Dominator has been just that, posting a 38-11-6 record with a 2.05 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. Incredible at age 42. The Wings won the Central Division six straight seasons and seven of the past eight, but the only time they played beyond the second round was when they won the Cup with Hasek in 2002.

It means Calgary could be in trouble starting tonight. Detroit is still stinging from the playoffs last season, when they won the Presidents' Trophy with 124 points and lost in the first round to Edmonton. The Wings aren't going to look past the Flames this time and could go deep into the playoffs.

Just think, the Sabres could start their postseason tonight against Ted Nolan and end it in June against Hasek. The Sabres shouldn't have a problem getting past the Islanders, but Detroit confirmed nothing is certain at this time of year.

Another interesting series starting tonight is New Jersey playing Tampa Bay. The Devils would like to turn it into a bore while the Lightning will do everything possible to pick up the tempo. It creates an interesting coaching matchup between New Englanders Lou Lamoriello, who took over behind the Devils' bench last week, and John Tortorella of the Lightning.

Atlanta and the New York Rangers will play in the other series. The Thrashers reached the playoffs for the first time in their history. The Rangers are looking to come back from a first-round sweep last season.

Here's a closer look:

>Detroit vs. Calgary

Red Wings update: Finished with 100 points or more in seven straight seasons and won the Central Division seven times in eight seasons. Regular-season success has equated to one Stanley Cup since 1998. Edmonton delivered first-round knockout to Hockeytown last year. It's different with a healthy and determined Hasek. Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Dan Cleary were the only 20-goal scorers for the Wings, who had a league-best 29-4-8 record at home this season.

Flames update: Finished off March with six consecutive victories to pull away from Colorado and secure final spot. The Flames had a miserable time on the road, posting a 13-20-8 record this season. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff posted second straight 40-win season, but his 2.46 GAA and .917 SP were his worst since 2002-03, when he was a part-timer in San Jose. Jarome Iginla scored 35 goals for the fifth straight season. Craig Conroy had three more goals and five more points in 28 games with Calgary than he had in 52 games with Los Angeles.

Outlook: Calgary's prize for the late surge was playing Detroit, which isn't about to get dumped in the first round for the second straight season. Red Wings in five games.

>Buffalo vs. N.Y. Islanders

Sabres update: Captured first division title since 1996-97 season and first conference title since 1979-80 season, when coach Lindy Ruff was a Sabres rookie. This team has its sights on something much bigger after losing in Eastern Conference finals last season. The Sabres are the team to beat in the conference, but it's been the case all season. Buffalo was the only team in the NHL with four 30-goal scorers. One problem has been the power play, which was ranked 17th and must improve if Buffalo wants to advance deep into the postseason. Great team could be even better with Maxim Afinogenov and Tim Connolly back from injuries.

Islanders update: Former Sabres coach Ted Nolan was masterful keeping the Isles in contention, but the real credit goes to third-string goalie Wade Dubielewicz. Who? Nolan turned to him out of desperation after Rick DiPietro was sidelined with a concussion and veteran Mike Dunham flopped. Dubielewicz responded with four straight wins in April to get the Islanders into the postseason. Alexei Yashin and Miroslav Satan make more money, but Jason Blake is their best forward. He led the Isles with 40 goals and 69 points. New York has neither the depth nor the speed to keep up with Buffalo's four lines, but it will match the Sabres' intensity.

Outlook: Buffalo has too much skill and playoff experience among players and coaches not to control the series. Sabres in five games.

>New Jersey vs. Tampa Bay

Devils update: Lamoriello's decision to fire coach Claude Julien with three games left in the regular season shouldn't be so shocking. He made a similar move during the 1999-00 season, when Larry Robinson took over late in the season and guided the Devils to the Stanley Cup. The difference now is Lamoriello has thrown himself into a pressure cooker by stepping behind the bench. It doesn't matter how he coaches. It matters how Martin Brodeur plays. If he finds his Vezina Trophy-winning form, they can win the Cup. If he doesn't, they could be in trouble.

Lightning update: Tortorella guaranteed his team would make the playoffs, but that was the easy part. The difficulty now is beating the Devils, who can shut down anyone with their disciplined team defense. The Bolts must find scoring up front beyond Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. Former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brad Richards had just 25 goals and was a minus-19 during the regular season. Johan Holmqvist appears to have taken over the No. 1 goaltending job. He has never played in an NHL postseason game. Then again, neither has shaky backup Marc Denis.

Outlook: New Jersey has too much experience and too great a goalie in Brodeur not to advance. Lecavalier will see plenty of John Madden. Devils in five games.

>Atlanta vs. N.Y. Rangers

Thrashers update: GM Don Waddell put his job on the line at the trade deadline, but there's little arguing with the results. Les Thrash was mired in a 2-7-2 slump before winning four straight and seven of nine after the deadline. Atlanta's biggest question mark is goaltending. Kari Lehtonen had a 2.79 GAA and .912 save percentage this season, which isn't good enough for an extended playoff run. Atlanta scored 246 goals, allowed 245 this season. Marian Hossa is often overlooked when talking about the NHL's best players, but he's right up there.

Rangers update: The Blueshirts struggled to stay in contention all season before going on an 8-1-1 tear late in the season to secure a spot. Jaromir Jagr is the only 30-goal scorer, but the Rangers are balanced across their four lines with five 20-goal men. Physical pest Sean Avery has been effective with eight goals, 20 points and a plus-11 rating in 29 games since being acquired from Los Angeles. Can goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who played 70 games, hold up? He had 4.41 GAA and an .835 SP in three playoff games last year, all losses.

Outlook: The Rangers were the better team down the stretch, and they have plenty to prove after New Jersey rolled over them last season. Atlanta was riding high after making playoffs for the first time in team history. Rangers in six.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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