Ron Smith, coach of the New York Rangers until being replaced yesterday by Mike Keenan, offers this evaluation of the first round of the NHL playoffs, which begin today.


Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders Offense: Edge to Washington.

Defense: Tossup.

Goaltending: Tossup.

Overview: Washington's strength is its offensive defense and three well-balanced lines. But it doesn't have any huge scoring guys. There is no one capable of dominating a series -- though a couple years ago John Druce proved you never know. I give the offensive edge to Washington, though, because of its blue-line guys. The defenses are pretty even, as defenses. Washington has the ability to wear you down and check you into the ground, but the Islanders can stop the rush. The Islanders will be very motivated and they do have the [Pierre] Turgeon line, which has been steady all year. On the goaltending side, Washington has Don Beaupre and now Rick Tabaracci. The Islanders have Glenn Healy and Mark Fitzpatrick. I don't think there is a clear edge.

Prediction: I think it will be Washington, because it has bette offensive balance.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New Jersey Devils Offense: Pittsburgh.

Defense: Pittsburgh.

Goaltending: Pittsburgh.

Overview: Pittsburgh has evolved into a really solid, two-way team. The Devils have given them a few problems, but whether they can cope with Pittsburgh's defense -- I doubt it. Pittsburgh's defense and goalie Tom Barrasso are at the top of their form. Barrasso is poised, collected and confident.

Prediction: It would really be strange if Pittsburgh doesn't win. They'll have a decided advantage in almost any series they play.

Adams Division Boston Bruins vs. Buffalo Sabres Offense: Tossup.

Defense: Boston.

Goaltending: Boston.

Overview: Adam Oates, Joe Juneau and Dmitri Kvartalnov have come on like gangbusters, while Ray Bourque, Don Sweeney and company are finishing their checks. Boston's goalie, Andy Moog, is very solid. Buffalo has Pat LaFontaine, Alexander Mogilny and Dale Hawerchuk.

B6 Prediction: A big surprise if Boston doesn't win.

Quebec Nordiques vs. Montreal Canadiens Offense: Quebec.

Defense: Montreal.

Goaltending: Tossup.

Overview: This could be the best series of them all. Montreal has really fallen back and Quebec has cooled off. The Nordiques have the clear offensive advantage (Mats Sundin, Joe Sakic, Steve Duchesne, Mike Ricci and Owen Nolan). But Montreal has a little edge on defense. And both have solid goaltending.

Prediction: I don't know who will win this one. I don't think the home ice matters, because of the emotion. I think it will come down to who takes advantage of its breaks.

CAMPBELL CONFERENCE Norris Division Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues Offense: St. Louis.

Defense: Chicago.

Goaltending: Chicago.

Overview: Chicago is a more physical and more rounded team than St. Louis. Defensively, it's the best in the league, and goalie Ed Belfour may well be the best goalie. St. Louis does have Brett Hall, Brendan Shanahan and Craig Janney, but Chicago can counter with Jeremy Roenick and Steve Larmer -- and it has Chris Chelios on defense.

=1 Prediction: Chicago should be a clear winner.

Detroit Red Wings vs. Toronto Maple Leafs Offense: Detroit.

Defense: Toronto.


Overview: This series will answer the question: Can a really good offense overcome a great, checking defense. Toronto has the second-best defense in the league and Detroit has a very good offense. It will be interesting. The goalies are something of an unknown. Felix Potvin of Toronto is untested in Stanley Cup play, but had success in the Calder Cup. Detroit's Tim Cheveldae has a chance to be real good, but he also has been erratic.

Prediction: I think if Detroit doesn't get frustrated with Toronto's defense and plays patient, it should win.

Smythe Division

Vancouver Canucks vs. Winnipeg Jets Offense: Tossup.

Defense: Tossup.

Goaltending: Vancouver.

Overview: Winnipeg will give Vancouver all it can handle. The Jets have a speed game that will match up well against Vancouver. It will be Teemu Selanne vs. Pavel Bure, and we haven't heard much from Bure lately. It's just going to be a tough series.

4 Prediction: Vancouver, but it'll be real close.

Calgary Flames vs. Los Angeles Kings Offense: Los Angeles.

Defense: Calgary.

Goaltending: Calgary.

Overview: Give the offensive edge to Los Angeles because it has Wayne Gretzky. He makes the Kings a touch more explosive. But Calgary has a little better defense and they've definitely got the advantage in goaltending.

Prediction: Calgary should emerge as the better team, but not a whole lot better.

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