Parity reigning in NHL playoffs
GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes roused a dormant fan base with an energetic season-ending burst that carried into the playoffs.
Lunch-pail likable and brilliantly resilient, they have made hockey cool in the desert again and given the NHL playoffs a distinctive new vibe by reaching the second round for the first time in a quarter century.
And they're not alone.
After years of the same handful of teams competing for the Cup, Lord Stanley's sterling mug has some new pursuers.
Red Wings, Canucks, Blackhawks, Bruins — they're all gone. In their place, still in the chase, are Coyotes, Predators, Kings and Blues.
Parity has taken over in the NHL playoffs, raising the possibility that the Stanley Cup could end up in a place like Nashville or Glendale, Ariz.
"You look at who's out: Detroit, San Jose and on and on," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. "And look at Chicago. That's a team that could easily be playing in the finals. That's how tight things are."
Prior to the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL had what felt like an inevitable march toward the end.
From the '90s forward, teams like Pittsburgh, Detroit, New Jersey and Colorado took turns trading the Cup, combining for nine titles in a 13-year span. Before that was the Great One's reign in Edmonton, the New York Islanders' dominance and the Montreal monster that seemed to exist since the creation of the NHL.
Tampa Bay broke up the monopoly in 2004, the year before the lockout, and the change continued after the players returned and the salary cap was put in place, leveling the rink so small-market teams had a chance.
Since the lockout, there have been six different champions, though there still were plenty of intriguing matchups: a pair of Detroit-Pittsburgh finals, Chicago's drought-ending victory over the similarly long-suffering Flyers and last year's don't-change-the-channel matchup between Boston and Vancouver.
This year's Stanley Cup finals could be Florida against Nashville.
That's not a bad thing, just different.
"It's great for the game and great for different markets," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "For my standpoint, every year with the salary cap the way it is, it's going to be like this going forward that once you get in, it's going to be anyone's sort of ballgame, if you will."
It's already been that way this year, particularly in the wild Western Conference.
The Los Angeles Kings squeaked into the playoffs then squished the Canucks, beating the West's top seed and last year's Stanley Cup runner-up in a surprisingly easy five games.
Nashville pulled off a similar did-that-just-happen job on Detroit, bogging down the speedy Red Wings to win in five games.
The Predators will face the Coyotes, who pulled off what many considered an upset despite being the higher-seeded team against Chicago in the first round.
Division champions for the first time in the NHL, the Coyotes got in the flying Blackhawks' way and pulled out a tense and tight series in six games for their first trip into the second round since 1987, back when the team was still in Winnipeg.
St. Louis also made quick work of the San Jose Sharks to face Los Angeles in the second round, and Washington stretched the run of no repeat Stanley Cup champions to 14 straight years by beating Boston in a Game 7 overtime thriller.
Ottawa and the New York Rangers were set to play a Game 7 Thursday night, a game that will determine whether Canada gets shut out of the postseason or the U.S. loses its biggest hockey market. And if Florida were to beat New Jersey in the other Game 7 Thursday, the NHL would have four teams below the Sun Belt still in the hunt.
If Ottawa and Florida both win, every team that has won the Stanley Cup in the past 35 years will be gone.
"You know the Detroits and the Vancouvers, they're gone now, and Pittsburgh, so everybody's going to think, 'man, we've got a chance of a lifetime here,'" Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "It gets amped up because of that, not because of nastiness or anything like that. That's just the desperation of hockey at this time."
Desperation seems to define everything the Coyotes do.
Playing without an owner for the third straight season, Phoenix used a big run in March and a five-game winning streak to end the regular season to claim its first division title in 33 years as an NHL franchise.
Supposedly overmatched by Chicago's cache of skaters, the Coyotes clogged up the neutral zone and rode the goaltending of Mike Smith to end a 12-series streak of losing in the first round.
They didn't make it easy on themselves, either, giving up goals in the closing seconds of regulation three times, playing five overtime games and winning three times at Chicago's United Center, including the 4-0 clincher Monday night.
"This is certainly a step forward," Maloney said. "It's exciting and it's really a reflection of the ineptitude of the franchise, if you think about it. For 33 years, this is only the third time that we advanced? You shake your head about it. But fortunately, we're where we need to be."
Yet for everything the Coyotes were able to accomplish, it still doesn't match what the Kings did.
Coach Terry Murray was fired in December and the team struggled to score all season, finishing second-worst in the league. The Kings did have Vezina Trophy finalist Jonathan Quick, though, and they started to score a little more toward the end of the season to sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed.
Expected to be a walkover for top-seeded Vancouver, Los Angeles instead ran over the Canucks, scoring 12 goals in five games while Quick turned away almost everything that came his way.
That put the Kings in the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 11 years and gave the NHL its biggest jolt in what has been a surprise-at-every turn playoffs.
"It went from 16 teams to eight, so it's going to get a lot tougher, not easier," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said.
And, the way things have gone so far, probably a lot wilder
AP Sports Writers Teresa Walker in Nashville and Greg Beacham in Los Angeles contributed to this report.