One by one, the old guard vanished – poof – from the playoff scene in the NHL's Western Conference. The Detroit Red Wings, the gold standard for going on two decades, out in the first round. The Vancouver Canucks, Presidents' Trophy winners for the best record in the league two years in a row, gone in the first round. The Chicago Blackhawks, champions as recently as 2010, gone in the first round. San Jose Sharks, perennial contenders, gone in the first round.
What's left is a new and comparatively unknown collection of challengers, a quartet of teams that cumulatively have won zero Stanley Cups in more than a century of collective existence, teams that have gone decades in some cases between playoff series wins, teams that have been waiting patiently to move into the spotlight.
There is nothing particularly sexy about the Nashville Predators or the St. Louis Blues or the Phoenix Coyotes or the Los Angeles Kings. They are defensively sound, battle-tested teams, all prepared to win every game by a 1-0 margin if necessary. Only one of the four teams, (Phoenix with Radim Vrbata), boasts even a single 30-goal scorer.
Somewhere from above, Roger Neilson must be smiling in anticipation of what is about to unfold.
Unless the Boston Bruins find a way to defend their title, somebody is going to end a long championship drought this postseason, and continue the trend of one-and-done championship seasons. Once upon a time, the NHL boasted one enduring dynasty after another. Now? It looks as though the long, hard playoff grind of one season simply takes too heavy a toll the next year.
Young, hungry, rested, anxious – those are the shared qualities of the teams moving forward this spring. Meanwhile, as many of the NHL's most relentlessly consistent franchises are on the sidelines, doing postmortems this week, they must ask, is this the dawn of a new era, representing a legitimate sea change, or a one-year aberration?
The series with St. Louis and Los Angeles is set as one wholly unexpected second-round matchup. The Blues and Kings share a lot of history, most of it far from compelling. They came into the league together in 1967 in the first wave of expansion and 45 years later, are still looking for their first Stanley Cup championships. They were both slow out of the starting gate this season and made successful coaching changes along the way – Ken Hitchcock taking over the Blues, Darryl Sutter joining the Kings. Hitchcock won a Stanley Cup with the 1999 Dallas Stars and Sutter took the 2004 Calgary Flames to the seventh game of the final, so they both have a working knowledge of what it takes to make a deep playoff run.
Hitchcock described the NHL as a “cookie-cutter, copy-cat league” for the most part, and said the only way to succeed in the current era is to forge a conspicuous identity.
“You look at us, we have an identity,” Hitchcock said. “You look at L.A., they have an identity. You look at the way Detroit was, they had an identity. Dallas, we had an identity that was different from Colorado's. The type of players we had, and the type of players we recruited, was all the same. They all to the style of game we wanted to play.
“If you look at Philadelphia, they play with an offensive flair and everybody plays that way and if you come in there and don't fit, you look out of place. It's the same thing with us. If you don't play above the puck with us, you look bad on the ice. We're kind of a checking mindset, gritty, stay-on-the-right-side-of-the-puck team.
“We knew we weren't going to lead the league in scoring with the [David]Backeses and [T.J.]Oshies, but we could formulate an identity around them. I think that's the way you win now.”
And never has the opportunity for a collection of comparatively unknown contenders looked so good. It means they can afford to exhale and simply be satisfied with going one step further than they did a year ago, or risk making a quick second-round exit.
“Some teams do that, I'm sure,” said Kings' centre Jarrett Stoll. “Those are the teams that are mentally weak and get satisfied pretty easily. You've got to realize you were 30 to start the season, and then 16, and now you're down to eight. It happens quickly. You get past that first round and your chance to win the Stanley Cup becomes greater and greater, so that should make it more and more exciting for every player.
“At this time of year, you shouldn't have any problem ramping it up or caring more, and pushing it even higher.”