As the first round nears a close, it’s hard to ignore the shift in the teams. No longer is hockey limited to teams north of the Mason Dioxin line, and for the first time the nontraditional markets are taking the 2011-2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs by storm. Sure the old standbys are having their moment (Pittsburgh versus Philadelphia, New York versus Ottawa) but nontraditional markets are showing they too are capable of playoff style hockey. And not just one team this season, 6 teams entered the playoffs that are considered “nontraditional markets” and 4 of the 6 have moved on to the semifinals, with one still waiting for a Game 7.
Despite being the former home of Wayne Gretzky, the LA Kings haven’t exactly been a hot bed of hockey. With their California location, the image of palm trees and surfers come to mind more quickly than face offs and forechecks. That being said, the LA Kings have shown the NHL once again that they are capable of being a competitive team, knocking out the Presidents’ Trophy winner in 5 games. With a goalie that is a strong contender for the Vezina (I’m writing this just hours before the finalists are announced) and an offense that has discovered scoring goals help the team win, the LA Kings are rolling along nicely in these playoffs as a strong contender in a nontraditional hockey market.
A few hours west of the Kings is the ownerless Phoenix Coyotes and they too are moving on to the semifinals after defeating an Original Six stalwart, the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. Even thought they do not know where they will be playing next season or who will own them, the Coyotes are going about business as usual, in the desert. While there are many detractors, the Coyotes are not one to be discounted. Advancing past the quarter finals for the first time ever and clenching their first Division title, they Coyotes are showing everyone that the desert can be an oasis for hockey, even if owners and their struggling fan base don’t think so.
As the Coyotes advance, their latest opponent is another nontraditional hockey market, the Nashville Predators who managed to defeat the Hockeytown Red Wings in 5 games. The defensive heavy Predators managed to not only rally themselves past the aging Wings, win on the road in the Joe Louis Arena, and fill the Bridgestone Arena with obnoxious mustard yellow tee shirts, the Predators managed to win the hearts of many in the NHL. With a solid defensive pairing on top of the brick wall in the net, the Predators shut down the Red Wings and showed the NHL that hockey does have a place in the south and it is a force to be reckoned with. Questionable face smashing aside, when the puck drops this weekend between the Coyotes and the Predators, it won’t only be a battle for the Conference finals, it’ll be a battle of two nontraditional hockey markets that has a potential to make history, as neither team has ever advanced to the Conference finals.
While some might argue the validity of the St. Louis Blues‘ “nontraditional” status, I should remind you that the only reason why the team exists is because the Blackhawks owners had a spare arena and pressured the league into giving them a team over Baltimore. The city of St. Louis was never interested in having a team, the Wirtz corporation was interested in having more money. Since their inception in 1967, the Blues have yet to win the Stanley Cup or win their Conference. The Blues are trying once again to win the Cup as they face the LA Kings in the second round.
On Thursday we will find out if the Florida Panthers are joining the nontraditional hockey market party in the second round as they were forced to a seventh game against the New Jersey Devils last night. Florida hasn’t been in the playoffs since 1999-2000 (in which they played the Devils and lost in 4) and like the other four nontraditional hockey market teams in this playoffs, are without a Stanley Cup.
Nontraditional hockey markets are taking over, how far will these teams get in Stanley Cup Playoffs? Only time will tell, but it’s nice to see the sport spreading to new markets and fans in a positive manner.
Thoughts on nontraditional hockey markets? Leave a comment or tweet at me.