THE PUCK wasbouncing as crazily as the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs last Saturday, ending upon the stick of Henrik Tallinder, a lanky Buffalo defenseman with a wispy beardthe color of cream of wheat. He is not particularly deft around the net--exceptwhen clearing people from in front of his own--but with the right side of theCarolina goal wide open, even he could flip one home, jump-starting the Sabresto a 3--2 win that seemed in doubt after hydra-haired Hurricanes defensemanMike Commodore scored in the third period. "Lucky," said Tallinder,"but I'll take it." Some 15 hours earlier the upstart Edmonton Oilershad won the Western Conference final opener in
Anaheim when AlesHemsky batted in a puck for the winner.
So to recap:Henrik Tallinder ... Mike Commodore ... Ales Hemsky.
If these arefamiliar names, you have been swilling the hockey Kool-Aid and are one of thosefabulous postlockout fans the NHL has thanked so obsequiously all year. If theyaren't, don't fret. The remaining playoff teams could form a chapter of HockeyAnonymous. "These four teams have been better constructed for the new rulesthan 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 theleague."
These Stanley Cupplayoffs are the North American Pro Puck Open: You merely have to be in it towin it. There is no chalk remaining, unless you count the chalk outlines on thesidewalks of Detroit, Philadelphia and Ottawa. "Anyone who says they're nota little surprised," Mighty Ducks defenseman Sean O'Donnell said of theplayoff results so far, "I wouldn't buy any real estate from them." Thepreseason Vegas odds on these teams' winning the Cup ranged from a low of 22 to1 for Edmonton to a high of 60 to 1 for Carolina and Buffalo, hardly shockinggiven that none of the four even made the playoffs in the NHL's last spring, in2004. The Oilers' odds actually lengthened, to 30 to 1, when they qualified asthe No. 8 seed in the West. "You don't have the normal pressures on thesefour teams," says Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford. "No onesuggested they are automatic Stanley Cup winners or that they are automatic towin any series."
Thisbracket-busting final four has been a triumph of style and substance, featuringplay that has been both inspired (Edmonton goalie Dwayne Roloson made a HailMary pass to Michael Peca for a shorthanded breakaway goal in Game 1 of theWestern finals) and tough (in the East, Cory Stillman took a seismic Game 1 hitfrom Sabres defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick to make a pass that led to a Carolinagoal). Still, as Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward said, "We have fourCinderellas." 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 hassauntered around with a KICK ME sign on its figurative back.
"If you havespent any time in Buffalo, you know we have lots of Tim Horton's [doughnutshops], 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'swhy] we're treated indifferently on both sides of the border."
Yet these teamsof little notice are changing a landscape, giving the lie to long-held playoffassumptions. To name two:
A team needsplayoff veterans, preferably those whose names are engraved on the Cup. Of the80 players who dressed for the semifinal openers, only six (Carolina'sStillman, Aaron Ward and Mark Recchi, Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer and JeffFriesen, 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 specialteams--the Sabres had five shorthanded goals through Sunday--are what willbring this year's title. When Buffalo reached its last playoffs, in 2001, itsplayers had a collective 1,116 games of postseason experience; this teamentered with 305.
A stablegoaltending situation is essential for an extended playoff run. Forget for amoment that three of the four goalies began the spring as playoff virgins. Orthat the other, Roloson, had a losing postseason record. Two of the quartetweren't even expected to play in May, and another fell from the sky 10 weeksago at the trade deadline. On the eve of the playoffs Carolina's No. 1 wasMartin Gerber; he yielded to the precocious Cam Ward in the second game of thefirst round. Anaheim's top guy, Jean-Sébastien Gigu√®re, was replaced by IlyaBryzgalov six games into the postseason. Edmonton, meanwhile, was only able toland Roloson in March because he had slipped to No. 2 in Minnesota.
While the quick,clever Sabres have been hailed as exhibit A of the new NHL, the Oilers areexhibit CBA. After having dumped stars because of budgetary constraints sinceWayne Gretzky's departure in 1988, the Oilers were transformed from sellers tobuyers by the salary cap. They binged like sailors after 15 years at sea,trading for Chris Pronger and signing him to a five-year, $31.25 million dealand dealing for Peca, who is starting to assume a playoff pallor reminiscent ofhis best seasons in Buffalo.
Anaheim G.M.Brian Burke arrived in the same place as Edmonton by going in the oppositedirection: He ditched some of his name players during the season. Preferringcombative to skilled and soft, Burke altered the culture of the team on thefly, trading--most notably--Sergei Fedorov, Petr Sykora and Sandis Ozolinsh andreplacing them with a collective snarl. Younger, better and cheaper is themodern NHL hat trick. "We were wondering what was going on [with thetrades]," Ducks right wing Teemu Selanne says. "But Burkie knew what hehad. The young guys have been unbelievable."
Now Anaheim facesan Oilers team just as physical, fast and determined, and Buffalo sees itsslick doppelg√§nger in Carolina. "If you're looking for parity," saysAaron Ward, "it's staring you in the face."
ELLEN OZIER/REUTERS (HURRICANES); JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (SABRES)
HURRICANES VS. SABRES
ICON SMI (DUCKS); DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES (OILERS)
DUCKS VS. OILERS