Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Blues part of new wave of entries in conference semifinals

Los Angeles, Nashville, Phoenix join foray; all
four teams have never won a Stanley Cup

As the West gets set to move into the conference semifinals, it does so by entering into uncharted waters.

There's a serious void left out from this year's proceedings.

Teams with previous postseason success, particularly in recent years, are all absent from the remainder of the tournament.
(Getty Images)
The Blues were able to eliminate the San Jose Sharks in five games in
the conference quarterfinals. They'll look to do the same against LA.

Detroit, winner of the Stanley Cup 11 times -- most recently in 2008 ... is gone. Vancouver, last year's representative from the West in the Stanley Cup Final and two-time Presidents' Trophy winner ... gone. Chicago, the Stanley Cup champs of 2010 and four-time champs ... out. And San Jose, without a Final appearance but a Western Conference Finals representative the previous two seasons and a preseason Stanley Cup pick ... booted from the tournament.

Go out East and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who reached the Final in 2008 and won the Cup in 2009, are also on the outside looking in. Last year's Cup champ Boston could be eliminated Wednesday night in the first round, as could Eastern Conference top seed New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils with their three titles. They face opening round Game 7s.

So as we move into a new era, the representatives in the West this year are the Blues, Nashville Predators, Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes.

And the number of Stanley Cup titles for the aforementioned teams: zero.

There appears to be a changing of the guard ... at least temporarily. Or is this just an aberration?

"I don't know that it's an aberration [but] I don't see a changing of the guard," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose second-seeded squad will face the No. 8 Kings in Round 2. "I just see more teams involved in the matchups now. I think we're a young team hopefully ready to grow, LA's got some young players ready to grow, Nashville the same ... Chicago's still a very young team.

"There's more teams involved in the mix here and I think it's not a changing or anything. A team like Detroit could retool themselves in one day. July 1st, they could retool themselves and be back on top again."

Here's how far-fetched the idea seemed that these four teams would be the ones left standing even as recently as the start of the playoffs:

The Blues, who dispatched the Sharks in five games, have only reached the postseason twice in seven seasons since the NHL lockout and haven't won a playoff round since 2002. The Kings, who eliminated the top-seeded Canucks in five games, have reached the postseason twice since 2002 and last won a playoff series in 2001. The Coyotes, since moving from Winnipeg in 1997, were 0-7 in opening round playoff series and defeated the Blackhawks this season for their first series win in the desert. And Nashville won its first playoff series a year ago. They are considered the veterans of this quartet.

"We were talking about that [Tuesday] morning; if you look at Nashville, they've got the greybeards [because] this is their second [straight] time in the second round," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong joked. "For us, it's the second time in a decade, LA in a decade and for Phoenix, a quarter of a century.

"This is a bunch of new teams getting into this. If there was an experience factor, I think that's gone out the window in the West."

There has always been this notion that there's a fear factor when it comes to some of the teams because of their past histories. But parity has struck with a vengeance and made the game more attractive to see new blood rise.

"That just shows how competitive this league is now," Blues defenseman Kris Russell said. "With the salary cap and all those things that go along with it, it's anyone's game.

"You look at Philly [in 2010], they get in [the playoffs] on a shootout the last day of the season and they get to the Stanley Cup Final. It's the best time for hockey from a fan's aspect. It's going to be great to watch, but also, it's going to be a lot of fun to be in. It's huge for this organization and I think everyone's excited to get this thing started."

There was a definite hurdle there between the teams on the rise and the teams that have been there before. Finally breaking through that hurdle will give teams now and in the future hope that parity has definitely arrived.

"The nice part for us is that the gap that was there between the top clubs is not there anymore," Hitchcock said. "I think they realize that, we realize that.

"I think every night we go into games thinking we can beat anybody in the West. There's a lot of teams that feel that way. I think you're looking at probably 10 teams that feel like, 'Man, we can win any time, any place.' That's a good feeling for hockey because when you've got more teams involved, it's better hockey for the fans."

Armstrong agreed.

"I think the Western Conference is loaded with some great teams, some great up-and-coming teams," he said. "You even take a team like Columbus that certainly had an off year but their expectations were much higher. They're going to be back.
(Getty Images)
Veteran Jamie Langenbrunner (middle) shakes hands with San Jose's
Logan Couture at the conclusion of the Western Conference Quarterfinals.

"There are new teams here in the West right now. I think it's great for the NHL. I think there's a wide, vast group of hockey people that don't know a lot about the four teams that are going to be playing and hopefully we're able to draw in more fans from across the country."

Yes, the newcomers have arrived, but what this also does is force those past contenders to retool and fuel the fire again.

"I think it just shows how tough the West is, especially next year," Blues veteran center Scott Nichol said. "Those teams are going to get better. We're going to get better, everyone's going to get better. It's even going to be tighter next year.

"It shows the development and all the training and all the draft picks are maturing. It's a tough league."

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