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New Blood in NHL’s Western Conference

To the casual hockey fan tuning into the second round of the NHL’s Western Conference playoffs they are going to be in for quite the shock when they don’t recognize the teams on the ice.

Where are the Red Wings? The Wings were clipped by Nashville in the first round in a five game series, thereby leaving “Hockey town” turning their attention to Detroit Tigers games earlier than anticipated.

How about the Blackhawks? Yeah, they are gone too. Suffered a defeat at the hands of Mike Smith and the Coyotes in a dramatic six game series that saw four decided in overtime.

Surely the San Jose Sharks are in the second round. Not so fast. Yes, they were done in by the Blues from Saint Louis and their dominant goaltending, leaving the Sharks out of the running for a Cup yet again.

That’s all well and good, but no chance the President’s Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks were knocked out in the first round. Gone the way of the Dodo bird and the Sedin twins and Roberto Luongo are likely making their tee times on the links as this is being read.

The St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Los Angeles Kings, and Phoenix Coyotes are the Final Four in the West. With the exception of Los Angeles, each of these teams is in a small market.

The question is if this is good for the NHL to have so many teams that are unfamiliar to the national audience.

The NHL is desperate for television ratings, which is difficult enough to come by with the likes of Chicago, Detroit, and all of Western Canada watching their respective clubs skate against each other.

Lacking the star power of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and Joe Thornton now is a prime time for NHL fans to get introduced to a new crop of burgeoning stars.

If only NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had an inkling as to market his sport and its top players.

Take a look at the L.A. Kings top line centered by Anze Kopitar who has flown, or shall I say skated under the radar out west for the last few years, but he is a dynamic two way center who is ready for the big stage.

The same can be said for Kings Goalie Jonathan Quick who merely led held the opposition without a goal an NHL high 10 times this year.

Quick represents the strength of the remaining teams in the “Wild West”, and that being each team’s best player is their goalie.

Nashville’s Pekke Rinne, Phoenix’s Mike Smith and Quick were the conferences leader in wins, while the tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott each a goals against average under two.

In fact, Elliott led the league with a face melting 1.56 GAA, and added nine shutouts in only 38 starts. Basically, he pitched a shutout in 25% of his starts. No slouch himself, Halak added six of his own, giving the Blues 16 shutouts over an 82 game schedule.

While the goal scorers and playmakers are home making tee times and watching the playoffs on CNBC and the channel formerly known as Versus, the goalies are doing the dirty work in attempting to get their team one step closer to hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup over their shoulders at the end of the month.

If there is one sports cliché that rings true it is a hot goalie can make up for deficiencies in other areas and carry his team well beyond even the most optimistic fan’s expectations.

Quick, Rinne, Smith, or Elliott may very well be the latest example of that in this years NHL playoffs.

And when one of them do make it to the playoffs, they may have to go up against arguably the best goalie this season, New York Rangers Henrik Lundqvist, or the best of all time, New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur.

Hope you can appreciate the 2-1 games and admire the work of a goalie standing on his head just as much as you would a 6-5 game with no defense.

The new blood merits watching and pay close attention to the way these net minders are dominating the crease.

It will be the deciding factor in who ultimately dons a championship ring this summer.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickASchmidt

Patrick is a diehard sports fan and former football player from Chicago, the greatest city in the world. The home of deep dish pizza, the greatest skyline in the world, and the best sports fans in America. Patrick has been a fan of the Cubs, Bears, Bulls, and Blackhawks since birth and is an avid college football fan, particularly the SEC. Patrick is the host of “The Wake Up Call”, a weekly sports show on Sportstownchicago.com every Wednesday morning from 8-10. View his show’s website here.

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