The second round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs has a new look. The format is still the same, and the rules haven’t changed, but the teams – particularly in the Western Conference – are in relatively unfamiliar territory.
It’s been nine years since one of the eight remaining playoff teams won a Stanley Cup, when New Jersey took home the Holy Grail in 2003. The 2004 champion Tampa Bay Lightning, the 2006 champion Carolina Hurricanes, and the 2007 champion Anaheim Ducks (2005 was a lockout season) all failed to make the playoffs, and each champion since -- the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins -- were each eliminated in the first round.
Of the eight semifinal teams, only three – the New York Rangers, Devils and Philadelphia Flyers – have ever won Cups, while the Washington Capitals and all four West teams – the St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes and Kings – have yet to reach hockey’s promised land.
After missing the playoffs for eight straight seasons, this marks the third consecutive year that the Kings have qualified for the post-season, and fans in Los Angeles are just now beginning to see a favorable trend.
“It’s exciting, it’s good for that organization, and their fans, their cities and everyone that cheers for those teams,” said center Jarret Stoll, who scored the series-winning goal in Game 5 of the Kings’ quarterfinal match-up with Vancouver.
While the Kings’ recent success still retains that new car smell, the Kings are definitely not the only new kids on the block.
The Blues, the Kings’ semifinal opponent, are making only their second post-season appearance since the 2005 lockout, their first coming in 2009 when they were swept by the Canucks in the quarterfinals.
In their 16-year history, the Phoenix Coyotes have never won a playoff round prior to this year, and the Nashville Predators, while a consistent playoff contender since the lockout, have never made it past the semifinals.
What does this mean for the evolution of the NHL?
“It means teams are done rebuilding and other teams are coming to the forefront,” said left wing Justin Williams, who won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006.
The “other teams” that Williams refers to can very well be the eighth seeds who have come to ‘upset’ the top-ranked team, just as the Kings did with Presidents’ Trophy-winning Vancouver.
The Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the team with the most points during the regular season, has been of little value during the playoffs, as the Presidents’ Trophy winning team has been eliminated in the first round four of the last seven years.
“The parity of the League now, it’s just not really a shock to see an eight seed beat a one seed,” said Rob Scuderi, an integral part of the 2009 Cup-winning Penguins team.
“The teams are closer than ever now. I know they were ahead of us in the standings, but match-up wise, I really don’t think it was a stretch, so it doesn’t shock me one bit,” said Scuderi, referring to the Canucks.
Although recent playoff experience may be deficient for the teams has a whole, the Kings/Blues series has a multitude of playoff veterans and Cup champions mixed into each team’s young nucleus.
“I just think it gives the teams an extra element of respect and maybe a little confidence in the room knowing that someone’s already been there,” said Williams, who owns one of four Stanley Cup rings in the Kings’ dressing room, the others belonging to Scuderi, left wing Dustin Penner and center Colin Fraser.
The Blues also have four Stanley Cup champs on their roster, in Jamie Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott, Andy McDonald and Kent Huskins. McDonald and Huskins were teammates of Penner in 2007 as all three won the Cup in Anaheim.
“Besides just playing the game, it’s up to veteran guys who’ve been there before to say the right things, but most importantly do the right things,” Scuderi stated.
Rookie winger Jordan Nolan, whose attempt at growing playoff whiskers would make a cat chuckle (he is 22 years old), is one of those players who is especially appreciative of the veteran leadership.
“You look to those guys and they’re going to step up for you, they’re going to help kids out like me, Kinger (Dwight King), Slava (Voynov), and help us through certain situations, how to deal with certain things,” said Nolan, who had the least amount of NHL game experience of anyone on the Kings’ active roster coming into the postseason.
“They’ve been great with us and they’re our leaders,” continued Nolan, who was eager to begin Round 2 after admitting to being a little nervous before Round 1.
According to Stoll, who, along with defenseman Matt Greene and veteran forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter has appeared in a Stanley Cup Final, the playoffs are an acquired taste that doesn’t take long to form.
“You get experience pretty quickly this time of year,” Stoll said. “Experience comes so quick and you gain it. This time of year, one game, two games, and certain situations – tough situations – you gain that experience.”
After playing tight, playoff-like games all season, the Kings have been able to build a nice postseason resume, currently holding a 3-0 lead on the Blues heading into Sunday’s Game 4 contest at STAPLES Center.
“You have to do what you do in the regular season but you have to ramp it up a little bit and meet the level that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs,” Scuderi noted.
“If you can do that, you’re usually OK.”