A wildly unpredictable Stanley Cup playoffs have been reduced to an unlikely Final Four with the eighth seeded Los Angeles Kings and the Phoenix Coyotes, a team in search of an owner meeting in the Western conference final.
In the East, the New Jersey Devils, led by netminder Martin Brodeur will meet the New York Rangers, who completed the conference finals lineup with a Game Seven win over the Washington Capitals on Saturday.
A showdown for a place in the Stanley Cup finals between Los Angeles and Phoenix may leave hockey purists in a sweat but for the National Hockey League it is a boost as it looks to raise the profile of the game in the American southwest and find a buyer for the Coyotes.
The league were forced to take over operation of the Phoenix franchise after it slipped into bankruptcy and have been seeking a buyer for three years.
“Hopefully it (a playoff run) has an impact (on prospective buyers),” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett told reporters. “Our players have really felt the buzz around the city here for the last month or so.
“It’s something we all recognize the situation off the ice. But if we do our job on the ice, hopefully people will recognize it and be enthused by it.”
There is also plenty of hockey buzz in Los Angeles, the Kings unlikely run to the Western Conference final bringing out the Hollywood glitterati.
The Kings scraped into the post-season as the eighth seed but beat the top seeded Vancouver Canucks 4-1 in the opening round then swept the second seeded St. Louis Blues in the second.
“It’s two totally different seasons,” said Kings coach Darryl Sutter.
“The issue that everybody in hockey always has to come to grips with is how difficult it is just to be a playoff team.
“You put expectations on a regular season, false expectations, and it usually falls apart because of injuries and personnel changes and maybe subpar performances by individuals.”
Goaltending should be the major factor in deciding which two teams advance to the Stanley Cup finals.
The Conference finals include two Vezina trophy finalists, the NHL’s all-time leader in wins and shutouts and a bargain basement free agent pickup, who has been a playoffs surprise package.
The goaltending battle in the East is a fascinating matchup pitting 40-year old Brodeur, a four-time Vezina winner and the NHL’s all-time leader in wins, going against the Rangers’ Vezina and Hart trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist.
Los Angeles and Phoenix rank one and two in goals against average in the playoffs and the duel between the Kings’ Vezina candidate Jonathan Quick and the Coyotes’ journeyman Mike Smith could provide one of the post-season’s great storylines.
“I’ve played well in the past but never been able to find that consistency I have this year,” said Smith. “You know, goalies go in and out of hot streaks.
“Obviously you have some games where you don’t play your best but this year I found a way to play well when I haven’t felt my best and tried to get out of slumps quicker than I have in the past.”
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