Yep, we're back in the early 90s — at least in the NHL.
After the Kings locked up their first trip to the conference finals since 1993 last Sunday, the other side of the bracket was set Saturday night with the Rangers holding off the Capitals 2-1 in Game 7 to set up a date with the Devils in a rematch of the memorable 1994 Eastern Conference Final.
No word yet on whether Ryan Callahan will be issuing any guarantees if the Rangers face elimination this time around. But Callahan and Co. will have to face the same goalie Mark Messier and that 1994 crew did, though, as Martin Brodeur is back in full '90s mode as he continues to defy Father Time with the kind of persistence usually seen only when it comes to Raffi Torres ignoring the latest legislation against head shots.
Torres will be sitting out these conference finals as part of his 25-game ban, but his Coyotes teammates will get to keep playing as they take on the Kings in the Western Conference final. Maybe this isn't exactly like the early '90s after all. Back then, the Phoenix franchise was still where it belonged in Winnipeg.
Still, the Stanley Cup playoffs definitely have had a retro feel this season. And having reached the halfway point in the chase for the Cup, here are some observations on the first two rounds now in the books and the final two rounds still to come.
Goaltending is usually the decisive factor in the playoffs, and this postseason has been no different.
All four teams in the conference finals have gotten there with strong performances from their netminders, but how those four goaltenders have gotten to this point varies widely.
Two of the remaining goalies are finalists for the Vezina Trophy this year, with Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick just entering his prime and New York's Henrik Lundqvist, who is also up for the Hart Trophy as league MVP, at the peak of his. Both have continued that success in the playoffs, with Lundqvist now 8-6 with a 1.68 GAA and a .937 save percentage, and Quick even better at 8-1 with a 1.55 GAA and a .949 save percentage.
Their counterparts, however, are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Brodeur just turned 40 last week and has three Cup rings, four Vezinas and more wins and shutouts than any goalie in NHL history. But his play has slipped in recent years, with age seemingly creeping up on him. Brodeur hadn't won a playoff series since 2007 before this postseason run, and he has seen his GAA climb above his career average in each of the last four regular seasons. He's proven he has enough for at least one more run in him, though, going 8-3 with a 2.05 GAA and a .920 save percentage so far this postseason.
For Phoenix's Mike Smith, it hasn't been an issue of trying to rekindle any old magic. Instead, he's taken advantage of a fresh start to enjoy his first sustained success in the NHL. The Coyotes plucked him off the scrap heap last summer after Ilya Bryzgalov bolted for the Flyers and a $51 million deal. Smith signed for just $4 million over two years after spending part of last season in the AHL and going unclaimed on re-entry waivers when Tampa Bay brought him back up.
Smith hadn't started more than 42 games in a season in the NHL before starting 67 this year in Phoenix. He rewarded the Coyotes' faith by posting career-highs across the board, with a 38-18-10 record, a 2.21 GAA, .930 save percentage and eight shutouts. And he's been even better in the playoffs, going 8-3 with a 1.77 GAA, .948 save percentage and two more shutouts.
Tim Thomas' historic run last year produced a 1.98 GAA and a .940 save percentage in the postseason to cop Conn Smythe honors. He proved he could maintain that level through four grueling rounds. This year's netminders have to show that same kind of staying power, but if the first two rounds are any indication, there could be another goalie hoisting the Conn Smythe this spring no matter which of the final four teams prevails.
NBC will be thrilled with at least half of final four teams left alive, as it keeps two of the prime TV markets in play with New York and Los Angeles still involved.
A Cup Final between the Rangers and Kings could be a ratings bonanza in what has already been an extremely successful year for the network. NBC has already drawn great numbers in the first two rounds, particularly the combative opening round that featured a wild, fight-filled series between cross-state rivals Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The network probably wouldn't be as happy if Phoenix and New Jersey advance, but that may suit the league just fine. Both the Coyotes and the Devils have been embroiled in financial troubles in recent years and could use the boost of a championship run.
Phoenix has been owned by the league since going into bankruptcy in 2009 but may finally be closing in on a sale to an investor willing to keep the franchise in the struggling market. A tentative deal to a group led by former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison was announced last week. Having a banner to raise in Glendale next fall would certainly give some added impetus to finalize that agreement.
Haven't We Done This Before?
When the Bruins won the Cup last fall, much was made of the leadership and guidance supplied by Mark Recchi and Shawn Thornton, the only members of the team to have previously won hockey's greatest prize. Having a few guys around who know firsthand what it takes to survive the grind of the NHL postseason can be invaluable.
All four of this year's finalists can call upon at least one teammate with such experience. New Jersey boosts the most Cup rings on its roster, with three players owning a combined seven titles. Brodeur leads the way with three, having been a key component in each of the franchise's championship runs in 1995, 2000 and 2003. Patrik Elias was also a part of both the 2000 and 2003 Cup winners, and Petr Sykora won a ring with the Devils in 2000 and another with Pittsburgh in 2009.
Across the Hudson River, the Rangers have three players with Cups on their resumes as well, and there are some impressive entries on those resumes. Brad Richards won the Conn Smythe in Tampa Bay's Cup run in 2004 with 26 points and seven game-winning goals in 23 games that spring, while Mike Rupp made his lone goal in 2003 count, as he scored the game-winner and set up the other two goals in a 3-0 win over Anaheim in Game 7 of the 2003 Final when he was with New Jersey.
Ruslan Fedotenko also won Cups in both 2004 with Tampa Bay and 2009 with Pittsburgh. And Rangers coach John Tortorella is the lone coach remaining with a Cup as a head coach, having guided Richards, Fedotenko and Co. to the title in Tampa in 2004.
Out West, the Kings have never won a Cup since joining into the league in 1967 and have reached the Final just once, with that coming all the way back in 1993. But forwards Justin Williams (Carolina 2006), Dustin Penner (Anaheim 2007) and Colin Fraser (Chicago 2010) and defenseman Rob Scuderi (Pittsburgh 2009) have won Cups. Defenseman Willie Mitchell was with the Devils in their championship season in 2000 but played just two regular season games and did not appear in the playoffs.
Phoenix has also never won a Cup, not even in its days in Winnipeg, although the original Jets did win three Avco Cups in the old World Hockey Association before the merger with the NHL in 1979. Ray Whitney is the lone Coyote with a Cup ring, having won it alongside Williams with Carolina in 2006.
The stakes will be raised considerably when the conference finals begin Sunday night in Phoenix, but it will be difficult for the final three series of the season to match the drama produced by the first two rounds.
Of the 69 games in the conference quarterfinals and semifinals, 43 were decided by a single goal. That included 21 that went to overtime, with three needing two overtimes and one triple-overtime marathon between the Rangers and Capitals. Another 15 games finished with just a two-goal margin, leaving just 10 games in the first two rounds won by three or more goals. Four of those came in the opening round series between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and they made up for the lack of nail-biting suspense by combining for 312 penalty minutes, 56 goals and record TV ratings in that six-game slugfest.
There have also already been four Game 7s this year, all coming in the East and all decided by one goal. Twice, even seven games weren't enough to settle things, as two of those decisive showdowns went to sudden-death overtime. The Caps won their final clash with the reigning champion Bruins quickly in the extra session, but the Devils had to go to double-OT before dispatching Florida in the first round.
The West has gone past five games just once in its five series in the first two rounds, but that conference has packed plenty of drama into its shorter showdowns. Seventeen of the 30 games in those six series have been decided by one goal, with 10 more being two-goal games. Eight of the overtime games so far have also been out West, including five straight to start Phoenix and Chicago's first-round series.
There are just three series left. No more than 21 games at most are left in the NHL season. But if the first two rounds of these playoffs are any indication, there's plenty of memorable moments still to come in these final few weeks before that long hockey hiatus in the summer.