AP Sports Writer
(AP) - The NHL's conference finals opened over the weekend without some of the top teams and big stars that highlighted the regular season.
Long gone are Pittsburgh's powerful point producers _ Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. With them went the Presidents' Trophy winners, the Vancouver Canucks, the No. 1 seed in the West, who were trying to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for a second season.
The team that defeated the Canucks last June _ the Boston Bruins _ also are gone, guaranteeing there will be a new champion.
But don't fret. There is still plenty of glitz and glamour left in the postseason, and ultimately, the possibility of a Broadway-Hollywood championship round. So, as we gaze ahead, let's look at some questions and offer a few predictions:
_ WHERE'S THE BEEFS?
Remember all those nasty fights and crippling suspensions that came out of the first two rounds? Yeah, seems long ago. Teams are keeping the peace in the semifinals, with a shot at playing for the Stanley Cup at stake. So did teams just go to their neutral corners and decide to lay low? Somewhat. But mostly the teams that decided to win with their fists _ like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia _ were simply eliminated. Ratings are up and the NHL wants to keep the numbers growing. Teams fighting for the Cup, instead of against each other, will have to spark the interest through the finals.
_ CAN THE RANGERS SURVIVE THEIR EARLY WORKLOAD?
No team has ever played 14 games in the first two rounds and gone on to win the Stanley Cup. New York will have to do that _ thanks to grueling tests provided by Ottawa and Washington _ if it wants to win its first championship since 1994. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and company looked awfully sharp on Monday night en route to a 3-0 win over New Jersey in Game 1 of the East Finals, so maybe history will be made.
_ IS THIS MARTIN BRODEUR'S FAREWELL POSTSEASON?
The veteran goaltender turned 40 years old during the second round against Philadelphia, and has shown some wear and tear at certain points this season. But let's face it, the Devils are back in the NHL's semifinals and to think he hasn't had a good bit to do with it would be naive. A year after missing the postseason for the first time since 1996, Brodeur, a three-time Cup winner, has eight playoff wins and one shutout. He's been quite sharp, and it's unlikely that he'd walk away after a series against his team's biggest rival, the Rangers.
_ HAVE THE KINGS CAPTURED LOS ANGELES?
The Lakers and Clippers are both alive in the NBA, and we all know that Los Angeles is a basketball town. But the Kings, the darlings of the postseason, are on a run for the ages, and the stars are coming out to the games much like they did when Wayne Gretzky donned the silver and black. It shouldn't be a surprise. Hollywood loves a good (success) story, and goaltender Jonathan Quick and coach Darryl Sutter have been scripting one for a month now. Ask the Canucks and Blues, who went a combined 1-8 against the Kings.
_ DO THE COYOTES MISS ILYA BRYZGALOV?
Certainly, there was cause for concern last summer when the financially strapped Coyotes had to let All-Star goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov walk away to Philadelphia. It was a business decision that had to be made, and Phoenix was going to have to find a way to move on. Well, consider that done. The Coyotes snared Mike Smith instead, and all he's done is backstop the franchise's most memorable playoff run. The Coyotes defeated the Blackhawks and Predators en route to the West Finals, and with whiteouts in the crowd and a new ownership group on the way, all is well in Phoenix. Meanwhile, Bryzgalov posted a 3.46 goals-against average in two rounds for the Flyers, and is home for the summer, as a result.
_ WHO WINS IT ALL?
The crystal ball is still foggy at this point. Flyers fans would rather renounce the cheese steak as their favorite sandwich rather than have to stomach watching ex-stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter hoist the Cup in Los Angeles. Martin Brodeur just might call it a career with the New Jersey Devils if he wins that fourth ring. But it says here, start planning a parade for the Big Apple. All signs point to the Rangers as the team set to win their first Stanley Cup since Mark Messier took them to the promised land in 1994. Unlike the former captain's bold boast during that run, however, we will not guarantee it.
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