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NHL Playoffs : Billy Smith Cleaning Up His Image

From Associated Press

Billy Smith is taking off his beard and putting on his game face this week.

“I’m not superstitious anymore, the beard’s coming off,” the New York Islanders’ goaltender said as he prepared for the opening round of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup playoffs tonight.

In previous years, the Islander veteran wouldn’t shave during the playoffs. Apparently, though, he doesn’t think the Islanders will need any extra luck in their first-round Patrick Division playoff series with the Washington Capitals.

“We’re playing pretty strong hockey,” said Smith, whose Islanders had nailed down third place in the Patrick Division with a couple of weeks left in the season. “Almost everybody’s healthy. I’m pretty confident. There’s a good feeling going this year.”

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The Islanders, of course, were the last team to win the Stanley Cup before the Edmonton Oilers, who have won for the last two years and are this year’s overwhelming favorites. The Islanders are on some people’s longshot lists this year.

“The Islanders are always going to be there,” said veteran Bernie Federko of the St. Louis Blues. “I think both the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals have to be a little leery to play the Islanders because of their experience, because of all that know-how.”

New Jersey Coach Doug Carpenter agrees.

“You have to take a long look at the Islanders,” Carpenter said. “A lot depends on the shape that Philadelphia and Washington are in (after their battle to the wire for the Patrick Division championship). The Islanders are one of the best teams I’ve seen or scouted all year.”

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The Capitals should be leery for another reason: For the last three years, the Islanders have knocked them out of the playoffs in the first round.

As good as the Oilers are, they have yet to accomplish what the Islanders did. The Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups, 1980-83, and made five straight appearances in the Stanley Cup final.

“I think the Oilers can be beaten,” said Islander defenseman Steve Konroyd, who was acquired this season from the Calgary Flames. “They haven’t really proved that they can dominate like the Islanders did. With all the talent around, it’s going to be a tough year for them.

“If they can repeat, you have to look at them as one of the great hockey dynasties. But until they do, they’re just a very talented hockey team. They can be beaten, they lost to Calgary, 9-3, (last Friday night), so they have weaknesses, too.”

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Islander captain Denis Potvin said that the Oilers will have a tough time in their own Smythe Division, especially with runner-up Calgary.

“The Oilers are not going to walk through out West,” Potvin said. “I feel much more optimistic about our chances. I just hope the team plays together.”

With 88 points, the Islanders surpassed their regular-season performance of last year when they also finished third in the Patrick Division. Their performance improved noticeably this season after they got defensive help in March, trading veteran left wing John Tonelli to Calgary for Konroyd and left wing Richard Kromm.

“I think it’s easy to see that this team is ready for the playoffs,” Islander goaltender Kelly Hrudey said. “For the first 40 games we were very inconsistent and didn’t do anything right. We just sort of coasted through.

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“But the last 40 games or so, we’ve been quite good (20-12-3 in their last 35). The last month and a half, we’ve been strong in every area. The trade only shored up our defense and we are without a doubt one of the strongest teams defensively now and our goals-against average has dropped a lot, too.”

In other first-round action in the Patrick Division, the Flyers will take on the New York Rangers. In the Smythe Division, the Oilers will play the Vancouver Canucks, and Calgary will play the Winnipeg Jets. In the Adams Division, the Quebec Nordiques will play the Hartford Whalers, and the Montreal Canadiens will take on the Boston Bruins. And in the Norris Division, the Chicago Blackhawks will play the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Minnesota North Stars will play St. Louis.


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