THE PUCK was bouncing as crazily as the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs last Saturday, ending up on the stick of Henrik Tallinder, a lanky Buffalo defenseman with a wispy beard the color of cream of wheat. He is not particularly deft around the net--except when clearing people from in front of his own--but with the right side of the Carolina goal wide open, even he could flip one home, jump-starting the Sabres to a 3--2 win that seemed in doubt after hydra-haired Hurricanes defenseman Mike Commodore scored in the third period. "Lucky," said Tallinder, "but I'll take it." Some 15 hours earlier the upstart Edmonton Oilers had won the Western Conference final opener in
Anaheim when Ales Hemsky batted in a puck for the winner.
If these are familiar names, you have been swilling the hockey Kool-Aid and are one of those fabulous postlockout fans the NHL has thanked so obsequiously all year. If they aren't, don't fret. The remaining playoff teams could form a chapter of Hockey Anonymous. "These four teams have been better constructed for the new rules than the more familiar ones," says Sabres winger Jason Pominville. " Carolina's like us--speed and skill. Same as Edmonton. Anaheim isn't old [and slow], either. I'm extremely happy, to be a small part of changing the league."
These Stanley Cup playoffs are the North American Pro Puck Open: You merely have to be in it to win it. There is no chalk remaining, unless you count the chalk outlines on the sidewalks of Detroit, Philadelphia and Ottawa. "Anyone who says they're not a little surprised," Mighty Ducks defenseman Sean O'Donnell said of the playoff results so far, "I wouldn't buy any real estate from them." The preseason Vegas odds on these teams' winning the Cup ranged from a low of 22 to 1 for Edmonton to a high of 60 to 1 for Carolina and Buffalo, hardly shocking given that none of the four even made the playoffs in the NHL's last spring, in 2004. The Oilers' odds actually lengthened, to 30 to 1, when they qualified as the No. 8 seed in the West. "You don't have the normal pressures on these four teams," says Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford. "No one suggested they are automatic Stanley Cup winners or that they are automatic to win any series."
This bracket-busting final four has been a triumph of style and substance, featuring play that has been both inspired ( Edmonton goalie Dwayne Roloson made a Hail Mary pass to Michael Peca for a shorthanded breakaway goal in Game 1 of the Western finals) and tough (in the East, Cory Stillman took a seismic Game 1 hit from Sabres defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick to make a pass that led to a Carolina goal). Still, as Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward said, "We have four Cinderellas." Edmonton has been a perennial small-market straggler; Carolina has had the burden of playing in a traditionally nonhockey market; Anaheim (seeded sixth in the West) should have Harvey the Rabbit as its mascot, given the team's invisibility; and the team in the border city of Buffalo has sauntered around with a KICK ME sign on its figurative back.
"If you have spent any time in Buffalo, you know we have lots of Tim Horton's [doughnut shops], and they are Canadian," says Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier. "And the Number 1 and 2 beers [here], at least I'm told, are Labatt's and [Molson] Canadian. We have dual citizenship in a lot of ways. Maybe [that's why] we're treated indifferently on both sides of the border."
Yet these teams of little notice are changing a landscape, giving the lie to long-held playoff assumptions. To name two:
A team needs playoff veterans, preferably those whose names are engraved on the Cup. Of the 80 players who dressed for the semifinal openers, only six ( Carolina's Stillman, Aaron Ward and Mark Recchi, Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer and Jeff Friesen, and Buffalo's Chris Drury) have won a Cup. The NHL may believe that "knowing how to win" is key to playoff success, but speed and special teams--the Sabres had five shorthanded goals through Sunday--are what will bring this year's title. When Buffalo reached its last playoffs, in 2001, its players had a collective 1,116 games of postseason experience; this team entered with 305.
A stable goaltending situation is essential for an extended playoff run. Forget for a moment that three of the four goalies began the spring as playoff virgins. Or that the other, Roloson, had a losing postseason record. Two of the quartet weren't even expected to play in May, and another fell from the sky 10 weeks ago at the trade deadline. On the eve of the playoffs Carolina's No. 1 was Martin Gerber; he yielded to the precocious Cam Ward in the second game of the first round. Anaheim's top guy, Jean-S�bastien Gigu�re, was replaced by Ilya Bryzgalov six games into the postseason. Edmonton, meanwhile, was only able to land Roloson in March because he had slipped to No. 2 in Minnesota.