The idea that hockey doesn't sell in the South has been a shallow but persistent argument through years of instability, ownership changes and threats of relocating the Phoenix Coyotes. The franchise remains on shaky financial ground and under NHL supervision, and its future remains uncertain.
Hockey wasn't the problem.
Bad hockey was the problem.
The Coyotes aroused their growing fan base when they eliminated Chicago in the opening round. It was their first series victory since 1987, when they were in Winnipeg, and first in 15 seasons in the desert. Hundreds of people greeted the 'Yotes at the airport when their charter touched down from Chicago.
"It's unbelievable," Coyotes goalie Mike Smith told reporters. "It's been a heck of a ride so far and our fans have been right there with us all the way."
Shane Doan is the only player still on the roster from their days in Winnipeg. He played 1,198 regular-season games over 16 seasons and 39 games over eight postseason appearances before winning a playoff series. The next step toward the Stanley Cup begins tonight with Game One against the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference semifinals.
People wondered if hockey would sell in Nashville, too, before the Predators became a consistent playoff team. The Preds missed the playoffs for their first five years but have reached the postseason seven times in eight seasons. They beat Detroit in the first round and are looking to reach the conference finals for the first time.
It sets up as a classic goalie war.
Smith was bombarded with more than 40 shots per game by the Blackhawks and was the biggest reason they eliminated Chicago. Smith had a 1.81 goals-against average and .950 save percentage in the six games. Preds goaltender Pekka Rinne, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, had a 1.81 GAA and .944 SP in five games against Detroit.
"It's two great goalies going at it," Predators defenseman Ryan Suter said. "It'll be a lot of fun for them, I'm sure. Hopefully we can get a few by [Smith]."
St. Louis and Los Angeles will play in the other conference semifinal starting Saturday in St. Louis. The NHL was awaiting Game Seven results Thursday night from the New York Rangers-Ottawa and Florida-New Jersey series before determining the start of the Eastern semifinals.
Here's a closer look at the West:
Phoenix (3) vs. Nashville (4)
*Coyotes update: Phoenix won three games in overtime to eliminate Chicago, confirming it can play under pressure against an experienced team. Chicago had 82 more shots on goal in the six games than Phoenix did. The Coyotes allowed only one power-play goal on 19 opportunities to lead the playoffs. Mikkel Boedker proved the importance of secondary scoring in the playoffs with two winners on the road. Defensemen figured in 12 of their 17 goals in the first round. Radim Vrbata had just one assist after putting up 35 goals and 62 points in the regular season.
*Predators update: The Predators finished off the Red Wings in five games mostly because they had an 11-4 scoring advantage in five-on-five situations. Alexander Radulov and Gabriel Bourque, who combined for 10 goals and 26 points in 53 games during the regular season, had four goals and nine points against Detroit. Ex-Sabres center Paul Gaustad, now playing wing, scored the first playoff goal of his career in Game One. It's a good sign when they knock out the Wings even though Martin Erat and Mike Fisher, two of their top three scorers, failed to score. Their PP needs work.
*Outlook: Nashville has more playoff experience and depth. Look for the Predators to split the first two games on the road and eventually win the series in six.
St. Louis (2) vs. Los Angeles (8)
*Blues update: The terrific defense and goaltending that carried them through the season continued when they dismantled San Jose in five games. Forward Andy McDonald, limited to just 25 games in the regular season, led the way with four goals and eight points in the first round. Getting him off the injured list in February was like adding a dangerous scorer and playmaker at the trade deadline. A key for them was their scoring depth after David Backes (one goal) was neutralized in the first round. The luxury of having two great goalies came into play when Jaroslav Halak was injured in Game Two. Brian Elliott took over, won three straight and had a 1.37 GAA and .949 SP. Halak isn't expected to return until after Game Two. Look for Elliott to remain in net.
*Kings update: Jonathan Quick's goaltending was the biggest reason Los Angeles was able to slow down Vancouver in the first round, especially the first two games on the road. Quick was excellent in the first two games and his 41-save effort in Game Three at home all but ended the series. He finished the series with a 1.59 GAA and .953 SP behind very good defense. The Kings maximized their size over the Canucks with an aggressive forecheck that's ideal for the playoffs. Dustin Brown, rumored to be on the trading block early in the season, scored all four of his goals in the first three games. L.A. scored only 12 goals in the series. Centers Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter combined for only two goals. Jarret Stoll had two goals, both winners.
*Outlook: The series will be another struggle between two defensive teams backed by premier goaltending. I'm sticking with the Kings, this time in six games.