How about Caps in six against Penguins?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PITTSBURGH -- The 78th drive for possession of the Stanley Cup begins today, with the defending champion New York Rangers at the Quebec Nordiques and the Washington Capitals at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In this lockout-shortened season, the rugged conference fights continue until Eastern and Western champions are determined and then East and West will collide in a seven-game title bout beginning June 17.

, A look at the opening round:

Eastern Conference

* Capitals (sixth place) vs. Penguins (third): Washington has the league's leading goal scorer in Peter Bondra (34), but the Penguins are the powerhouse, with Art Ross Trophy winner Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Kevin Stevens, Tomas Sandstrom and Luc Robitaille. The Caps will counter the attack with six strong-willed defensemen in Calle Johansson, Sylvain Cote, Jim Johnson, Joe Reekie, Sergei Gonchar and Igor Ulanov and defensive-minded forwards who come back to help. In the net, Washington's youth movement of Jim Carey (2.13 goals-against average) and Olie Kolzig (2.49) have the edge over Pittsburgh's Ken Wregget (3.21) and Tom Barrasso (3.84).

Pick: Capitals in six.

* Nordiques (first) vs. Rangers (eighth): Quebec has lost one game at home and has the advantage through the Eastern Conference finals. With Owen Nolan, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Mike Ricci on the offensive, New York's defensive advantage -- Brian Leetch and Sergei Zubov and goaltender Mike Richter (2.92) -- should be nullified.

Pick: Quebec in five.

* Philadelphia Flyers (second) vs. Buffalo Sabres (seventh): The Flyers have the offensive advantage with Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg, but Buffalo has the goalie in Dominik Hasek (2.11). And if former Flyers defenseman Garry Galley can inspire a little revenge, Philadelphia may have its hands full. But will Lindros (bruised eye) be able to play, much less lead the Flyers? Will Buffalo's Dale Hawerchuk (day-to-day with hip strain) return and make a difference?

Pick: Buffalo in six.

* Boston Bruins (fourth) vs. New Jersey Devils (fifth): This could be one of the best series, with New Jersey's solid, six-man defense, anchored by Scott Stevens, Shawn Chambers and Scott Niedermayer, opposing the potent Adam Oates, Cam Neely and Ray Bourque. New Jersey would seem to have the goaltending edge in Martin Brodeur (2.45) over Blaine Lacher (2.41).

& Pick: Boston in seven.

Western Conference

* Detroit Red Wings (first) vs. Dallas Stars (eighth): Powerful Red Wings Sergei Fedorov, Ray Sheppard and Dino Ciccarelli are rolling. Dallas, without Mike Modano and defenseman Derian Hatcher, may want to call in sick. Detroit has allowed the second-fewest goals in the league (117) and has a one-two goaltending punch in Mike Vernon (2.52) and Chris Osgood (2.26).

Pick: Detroit in four.

* Calgary Flames (second) vs. San Jose Sharks (seventh): All the advantages lie with Calgary, but don't discount the Sharks. The Flames have Theoren Fleury, Joe Nieuwendyk and Phil Housley, and San Jose relies on rookie Jeff Friesen and veteran center Craig Janney. And Calgary goalie Trevor Kidd (2.61) has been steady all year. Still, Arturs Irbe (3.26) can win a series by himself.

Pick: San Jose in seven.

* St. Louis Blues (third) vs. Vancouver Canucks (sixth): The Blues have six players with 30 or more points, starting with Brett Hull's 50, and a defense that features Steve Duchesne, Jeff Norton and Al MacInnis. St. Louis also has goalies Curtis Joseph (2.79) and Jon Casey (2.75). Vancouver? It has goalie Kirk McLean (2.75) and a desire to redeem its .500 season with a return to the Cup finals.

Pick: St. Louis in six.

* Chicago Blackhawks (fourth) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (fifth): Chicago has the best power play in the league, and its offense has re-established itself after the loss of Jeremy Roenick (knee). Bernie Nicholls continues to thrive. On defense, Chris Chelios and Gary Suter make life easier for goalie Ed Belfour (2.28, tied for league lead in shutouts with five).

Pick: Chicago in seven.

CAPITALS TONIGHT

Opponent: Pittsburgh Penguins

Site: Civic Arena, Pittsburgh

Time: 7:30

TV/Radio: Ch. 20, ESPN2/WMAL (630 AM)

Outlook: Pittsburgh and Washington are meeting in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the fourth time in five years. The Caps defeated Pittsburgh in six games last season. Rookie goalie Jim Carey will be in net. Pittsburgh went 2-4-1 over its last seven games and closed the season on a three-game losing streak. The Caps went 5-1-1 over their last seven. Washington reports D Mark Tinordi (sprained knee) is out. Pittsburgh reports D Wayne McBean (wrist) is out.

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