Winds of change blow through Stanley Cup playoffs

Published April 27, 2012

| Reuters

By Steve Keating

A stormy post-season that has been shocking for both its violence and its upsets continues on Friday with the start of round two and the promise of more surprises in store.

For edge-of-your-seat excitement the opening round will be hard to top after featuring a single series record of 16 overtime clashes with three of the best-of-seven encounters going the distance.

In the West, four teams that have never won the Stanley Cup will make up the conference semi-final lineup.

The Los Angeles Kings, conquerors of the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks, will face off against the St. Louis Blues while the league owned Phoenix Coyotes take on the Nashville Predators.

In the East, the top-seeded New York Rangers survived seven games to see off the Ottawa Senators while the second-seeded Boston Bruins were not as fortunate, the reigning Cup champions falling to the Washington Capitals in a nail-biting seven-game series with each game decided by a one-goal margin.

"I think winning any way you can is what playoff hockey is about," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis told nhl.com.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, tipped by many as Stanley Cup favorites with captain Sidney Crosby back in a lineup that included league-scoring champion Evgeni Malkin, failed to clear the first hurdle as they fell to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Meanwhile the New Jersey Devils needed double overtime in Game Seven to end the Florida Panthers' championship dreams.

The Rangers, the only Original Six team to reach the last eight, will meet the Capitals, another team looking to hoist the Cup for the first time, while the Flyers and Devils will renew their interstate rivalry.

Confirming a changing of the guard, the last four Stanley Cup champions - the Bruins, Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings - will all be watching from the sidelines after making first round exits.

CUP SUCCESS

All three Vezina Trophy finalists for league net minding honors - Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers, Jonathan Quick of the Kings and Pekka Rinne of the Predators - have brought their best form to the post-season.

Lundqvist's value to the Rangers was underlined when he was named a Hart trophy finalist for the league's most valuable player.

The Devils' Martin Bodeur, the NHL's all-time leader in wins and shutouts, knows how to get the job done in the playoffs as well with 103 career post-season wins while the Flyers' quirky Ilya Bryzgalov must prove he is worth the nine-year $51 million contract Philadelphia paid to land the free agent.

But it is Capitals rookie Braden Holtby, who was playing in the minor leagues just two months ago, and Coyotes journeyman Mike Smith, a waiver wire pickup, who are writing Stanley Cup Cinderella stories.

Getting his chance after Tomas Vokoun and Michael Neuvirth went down with injuries, the unshakable Holtby has been magic in the Capitals net, out-dueling the Bruins' Vezina and Conn Smythe trophy winner Tim Thomas to help deliver a first round upset.

Several second round series have the potential to develop into thrilling goaltending duels but none more so than the Predators and Coyotes, who will both be battling for a first ever trip to the conference finals.

A Vezina finalist for the second consecutive year, Rinne's reputation as an elite net minder is well established but Smith's emergence comes as one of this season's biggest surprises.

Taken in the fifth round of the 2001 draft by the Dallas Stars, Smith had never won more than 15 games in a season until posting 38 victories this campaign.

The Canadian has continued to shine in the playoffs, holding Chicago to two goals or less in five of six games before finishing off the frustrated Blackhawks with a 4-0 shutout in Game Six, despite being outshot 28-8 in the first two periods.

"Well, did you see the month of February (when he went 11-0)? He was that good all year."

(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)

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