NHL Action Moves On To Conference Finals

The conference finals are underway in the National Hockey League playoffs. In the East, the New York Rangers will face the New Jersey Devils Monday. In the West, the Los Angeles Kings have won Game 1 — beating the Phoenix Coyotes 4-2.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The National Hockey League Stanley Cup playoffs have reached the conference finals. In the East, the traditional rivals, the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils play their first game tonight. And in the West, we have a somewhat less traditional rivalry as the L.A. Kings play the Phoenix Coyotes. Game one of their series came last night and the Kings got the final goal from Dwight King.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Open net for King. He scores. Dwight King's second goal of the game is likely going to seal this one with just under 48 seconds remaining.

INSKEEP: Indeed it did. That was the call from the NBC sports network as the Kings took the first game four to two. It is a best of seven series, though. Lots of hockey to go. Here to discuss all of this is NPR'S Mike Pesca.

Mike, good morning.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello.

INSKEEP: OK. So the L.A. Kings get the first win of the series. These guys have attracted a lot of excitement, because they barely made the playoff at all.

PESCA: Yeah, they were the eighth seed in the West. And they just went on the road. They set a record for having won their first six road games of 2012, which is good since they'll never have home ice advantage as the eighth seed in the West.

INSKEEP: They're at the bottom. Yeah.

PESCA: Yeah. And no one expected the Kings to make the playoffs, although hockey does have this tradition. Since 2006, three eighth seeds have been playing in the conference finals. But no one expected the Kings to do well.

Phoenix is I guess a Coyote of an entirely different color, because they're really, without exaggeration, the beleaguered franchise in professional sports. Forbes rates them as the least valuable franchise. They've been bankrupt for the last three years. The NHL owns the team, desperately trying to find an owner. They haven't been able to find one. You know, what is this team doing having any success, but there they are on the verge of the Stanley Cup finals.

INSKEEP: I'm still recovering from you saying a Coyote of a different color. But...

PESCA: Yeah, they're purple.

INSKEEP: But let me try to get out this next question. If you have a bankrupt team, are you more likely to get a buyer if you're in at least the conference finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs?

PESCA: Well, yes. And it might be a little bit of a coincidence. They do have a buyer, Greg Jamison, who used to run the San Jose Sharks. He's interested. They've had a lot of people interested, but it's hard to work out a deal because the city of Glendale, though the 88 biggest city in the United States, decided to spend some of its taxpayer money every year on keeping a hockey team. So the only inducement for an owner is the fact that Glendale pays you.

During the regular season, the Coyotes were last in the league in attendance. But they've been selling out playoff games, so maybe it can be attractive to have hockey in the desert as an ongoing enterprise.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about hockey in the Northeast now - he Rangers and the Devils.

PESCA: Yeah, they're playing right across the Hudson. You know, so everyone remembers - or most hockey fans remember - that in 1994 Mark Messier helped the Rangers end their 54 year drought. He raised that Stanley Cup in Madison Square Garden. But three times since then the Devils have won the Stanley Cup there. If anything represents a tradition in the East, they're maybe the best team over the last 20 years.

This is a rivalry. I would recommend, if you're the kind of person who likes fisticuffs, to tune in early. Twice the teams have dropped the gloves exactly as the referees dropped the puck. So it's going to be a rough series, but it should be a pretty good series.

And the Rangers are the only number one team left. The Devils are a sixth seed. So what the NHL is staging is a playoffs where of the top ten teams only one remains. Maybe it will be the Rangers' year again. They also have this streak of winning all these game sevens at home, which - they've never lost a game seven at home. It's kind of nice, psychologically, to have that in your back pocket.

INSKEEP: So in a couple of seconds, I mean, sportswriters play up these rivalries, but it sounds like this is a serious one. They really feel it.

PESCA: They don't like each other. The Kings and Coyotes don't like each other. To be a hockey player is to not like the other hockey players.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Mike, thanks very much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And we certainly like NPR's Mike Pesca. We keep bringing him back, anyway, right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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