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New blood advancing in the Western Conference

by Louie Korac

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As the Western Conference gets set to move into the conference semifinals, it does so by entering uncharted waters.

There's a serious void in this year's proceedings.

Teams with previous postseason success, particularly in recent years, are absent from the proceedings.

Detroit, winner of the Stanley Cup 11 times -- most recently in 2008 -- is gone. Vancouver, last year's Western Conference champion and two-time Presidents' Trophy winner -- gone. Chicago, the Stanley Cup champs in 2010 -- they're out. And San Jose, which made the conference finals the last two years -- booted from the tournament.

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

The number of Stanley Cup titles for that quartet? Zero.

So is this a changing of the guard? Or a single-season 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 the conference semifinals. "I just see more teams involved in the matchups now. I think we're a young team hopefully ready to grow, L.A.'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 1, 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 knocked out the Sharks in five games, have reached the postseason twice in seven seasons since 2005-06 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 had last won a playoff series in 2001. The Coyotes, who beat the Blackhawks in six games, had been 0-7 in playoff series since moving to Phoenix in 1997. And Nashville won its first-ever playoff series a year ago; they're considered the veterans of this quartet.

"We were talking about that [Tuesday]," Blues GM Doug Armstrong said. "If you look at Nashville, they've got the greybeards [because] this is their second [straight] time in the second round. For us, it's the second time in a decade, L.A. 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 always has been the notion that there's a fear factor when it comes to some teams because of their histories. But parity has struck with a vengeance.

"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 had been a gap between the teams on the rise and the teams that had been there before. Finally narrowing that gap will give teams hope, now and in the future, that parity definitely has 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.

"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 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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