x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

An unfamiliar look to the NHL play-off semi-finals

The first round churn pits an unprecedented line-up this season.

The Rangers are the only Original Six franchise to remain in the hunt.
The Rangers are the only Original Six franchise to remain in the hunt.

These are not your father's NHL play-offs. And if you told your grandfather about the final eight teams remaining in the chase for the Stanly Cup, he would give you a withering look.

The past four Stanley Cup champions - the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings - are gone. The Vancouver Canucks, back-to-back Presidents' Trophy winners as the NHL's best regular season team, are gone.

The only Original Six franchise that survived a ferocious first round were the New York Rangers, the top-seeded team in the East who pipped the Ottawa Senators in seven games. Historical heavyweights such as the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs did not even make the play-offs in the first place.

In the East semi-finals, the Rangers face off against the Washington Capitals, who have transformed from The Alex Ovechkin Show to a cast of role players and grinders.

It is the third time in four years that the Rangers and Caps have been play-off foes.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils, neighbours in the Atlantic Division, get to stay close to home even when they are playing on the road.

To be sure, the Rangers and Flyers were considered contenders entering the play-offs, but not on the same level as the Penguins - whom the Flyers eliminated - and the Bruins, who fell to Washington.

It is in the West where the unprecedented nature of the 2012 NHL post-season is best illustrated. The Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes are facing off in one semi-final while the St Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings duel in the other.

The Preds are a strong team, but this is just the second time they have been to Round 2. The Coyotes had never won a second-round contest until they nipped Nashville in overtime in Game 1.Whoever comes out on top in this series…well, perhaps the NHL’s advertising campaign put it best: “History will be made.”

The Blues, meantime, had a professional sports record of 25 consecutive playoff appearances, but that streak was snapped prior to the 2004-05 lockout and they wandered in the wilderness for a few years before finally putting together a stellar 2011-12 season.Like the Preds and Coyotes – and their first-round opponent, the Kings – have never won the cup.

Make no mistake, though, the West’s four remaining teams share a few traits that might result in a memorable play-off run.

They are fast and physical. They’ve all got great goaltending and sharp coaching. They might be unheralded, but they should not be underestimated.

The Preds and Coyotes are practically mirror images of another, hard-working outfits that rely on defense and speedy forechecking. Nashville has more raw talent, but the perennially dismissed Coyotes are playing inspired hockey and look like the real thing.

The Blues are deep up front and were the NHL’s best defensive team during the regular season. The Kings have the most skilled forwards in the West, led by Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter.

So even if your father does not recognise the teams, he will be happy with the brand of hockey that they play.

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