The Western final is settled, but in the East a lot is still to be decided. We’re just about halfway to the Cup. Here’s what’s happened in the last few days.

Phoenix moves on. Yes, Phoenix.

I’ll give you a moment to collect your jaws from the floor.

Not only did the Phoenix Coyotes move one step closer to having a new owner Monday, but they beat the Nashville Predators to move on to the Western conference final. It was quite the day in Arizona.

As has become a running theme with the Coyotes so far this postseason, goalie Mike Smith was implacable at the back, stopping (almost) everything the Preds threw his way, even through what has become a familiarly large amount of traffic in front of his net (caused as much by opposing players as his own, collapsing back to bury any chances of the puck ever really finding its way through). He went 164 shutout minutes before the Preds’ Colin Wilson finally netted one late in the third.

On the other side, the Nashville team that showed up was a shadow of the one that manhandled Detroit in the first round and so many other teams before them in the last half of the regular season. Except, that is, for in the last few minutes of the third period, where they went absolutely insane and peppered the ‘Yotes when they threw just about everything they could at the Coyotes. But for most of the game, the Preds kept getting caught deep, pinching and then having to fall back quickly in an attempt to recover from whatever counter-attack would suddenly spring up. Normally that wouldn’t have been a problem, but for the fact that Pekka Rinne has not looked himself either these days – and I don’t think that’s just because he’s being directly contrasted with Smith.

Here, for example, is the second Phoenix goal, which exemplifies what I mean.

Phoenix goal

So now we have a Western conference final between the Phoenix Coyotes and the LA Kings, two Pacific division teams who were really only nominal additions to the playoff picture at the end of the regular season by virtue on the one hand of the NHL’s 3rd place rule and on the other of a few timely wins down the stretch. TSN offered up this after the game: On 18 March, less than a month before the playoffs started, neither of these teams was in the top eight in the West.

Now look what happened. The Phoenix Coyotes. The old Jets. A team whose jerseys used to look like this. A team that has been the butt of any NHL attendance joke in the last decade. Now look what might yet still happen. Either way, we’ll have one of these teams in the final. And then we’ll see something really special.

So long, St. Louis

A lack of production from the top two forward lines, along with a few shaky performances from Brian Elliott, and the Blues are out of the postseason, swept aside by a now formidable looking LA Kings team. It took until the second period of Game 4 in this series for the Blues to finally find some pep – outshooting the Blues 13-3 in the frame – but they just couldn’t put anything by Jonathan Quick, which is really what matters in the end.

So Quick was good, but this team isn’t just riding a hot goalie as long as they can and holding back the tide long enough to grab a win (ahem, Phoenix?). Fourteen different players have scored for the Kings so far in the playoffs, and their big names up front – Richards, Carter, Penner – have all stepped up every game either simply physically, or to make plays when it counted. As for the defence? Drew Doughty is looking better than ever – even to the competition.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock offered some praise for Doughty (along with this own D-man, Alex Pietrangelo). Lisa Dillman at the LA Times offered up this quote from Hitchcock before Sunday’s game:

“They can absorb a check and lug out the puck out themselves. You can’t find that very often. That’s what he [Doughty] does. You think you’ve got him. He pulls away on you. You think you’ve got him pinned on the boards; he pulls it off the boards and makes the play. Both guys are great at it.”

Though, as the series result showed, perhaps one was slightly more influential than the other.

Speaking of stand-out players on the Kings, we should probably quickly talk about Dustin Brown, the Kings captain, who’s really come into his own in this series. He had two goals against the Blues in Game 4, and six overall in the series (a title he shared with Anze Kopitar). Brown has fulfilled captaincy role in a big way so far this postseason, and it’s nice to see for a guy who worked hard for years before finally having a team assembled around him that could compliment his hard, physical, scoring style. Perhaps especially because it seemed he was on the cusp of being traded not so long ago.

In any case, it’s clear the Kings have now emerged as the team to beat, and not just in the West. An 8-1 record in the playoffs is nothing short of very impressive. The question will be whether they’ll be able to continue their momentum now that they’ll have what looks to be a decent break period before the next round kicks off.

Rangers clamor back for OT win

If you missed Monday night’s tilt between the Rangers and Capitals, that’s a shame – especially if you happened shut it off with about a minute left. After multiple momentum shifts throughout the game, the Capitals had a somewhat surprising 2-1 lead going into the final moments of the game. The lead was notable due quite simply to the fact that they’d been heavily out-shot (26-10 by the end of the second period).

But a few important things go a long way. First, is that for all the shots the Rangers took, the Capitals were up to the challenge of blocking them. Going into the game, there’d been a total of 182 blocked shots in the series, and the majority of those (over 100) hit some part of the Capitals’ payroll. The second thing the Caps had going for them was the same thing they’ve had going for them for a while: Braden Holtby, the ever impressive netminder.

What they didn’t count on was a high sticking call against Joel Ward as the clock ticked down on the third period. Nor did they count on it breaking the skin and bringing out some blood, meaning it was a four-minute minor, a penalty that would carry over into the overtime should there be one. And of course, there was, thanks to this goal from Mr Clutch, Brad Richards, with six seconds left:

Brad Richards, with six seconds left

It only took a minute and a half of overtime and a long bomb from Mark Staal (who’d earlier saved the Rangers from going down by two with a very impressive back-check on a three-on-one) from the point to settle it.

It’s not immediately clear what the Capitals will be able to do differently next time out. Apart from being on their heels in the first, the Caps recovered and managed to take advantage of the few scoring chances they generated. Even Alex Ovechkin was blocking shots Monday night (with his back, no less!), so as they travel back to D.C. it’s safe to say this is still perhaps anyone’s series.

Can the Flyers hold on?

Now we’re faced with an interesting situation: not only are the Flyers facing elimination now following their 4-2 loss to the Devils on Sunday night, but they’ll have to do it without their main man, Claude Giroux.

Devils forward Dainius Zubrus scored the go-ahead goal shortly after the start of the second period. Not long after that, he was skating down the boards, the Flyers’ Giroux hot on his heels. He dumped the puck in. Then Giroux hit him, then, shoulder to the jaw. Zubrus went down. Here’s the hit.

Result? Shanahan gives Giroux a one-game suspension

Giroux reportedly told the press that he was just trying to finish his hit and Zubrus “kind of leaned in and I kind of hit him, my shoulder to his head. My elbow was down. I didn’t jump. It’s a good thing he didn’t get hurt. I’m a pretty honest player. I’m not a dirty player. I’m not out there to hurt anybody. I was just trying to finish a hit.” Most of which is probably true, generally. Giroux isn’t really normally the type to deliberately hurt anyone. But there we are, faced with the video evidence.

So, was this the right call?

In any case, the Flyers are in tough now. Mike Zeisberger at the Toronto Sun said diagnosed the Flyers’ loss on Sunday as an implosion.

Sam Carchidi at the Philadelphia Inquirer thinks the Flyers have “lost their mojo.” His colleague, Phil Sheridan, thinks the Flyers need to start believing some of the stories “of gritty comebacks and overcoming long odds,” they’ve been telling themselves.

It’s probably some kind of combination of all three, but Sheridan points to one aspect of the Giroux hit that seems to have played the most prominent role in their downfall. It’s quite simple, actually. He notes that Giroux lost control and made a stupid mistake – something that’s dogged the Flyers so far in this series.

“It was immature and unnecessary and borne of this simple frustration: Giroux and the Flyers have not been able to play good, even acceptable, hockey against the Devils, so he lashed out at an unsuspecting opponent.”

The Flyers will have to overcome that, get composed and find scoring from people other than Giroux, all the while hoping Ilya Bryzgalov can come through when it counts. Will it work?

International hockey: not that friendly

Two quick videos from the IIHF world championship, just to prove that international hockey isn’t quite as kind and friendly as it’s sometimes made out to be.

First, this hit from France’s Sacha Treille on Roman Starchenko of Kazakhstan, which is pretty awful:

Nowhere near as bad, though still obviously a problem: here’s Denmark’s Philip Larsen being dumped into the bench and then kept there by Italian backup goalie, Thomas Tragust.

Source : Phoenix move on, goodbye to St Louis and the Rangers leave it late – The Guardian (blog)