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Sunny NHL playoffs: Every Stanley Cup semifinalist is from Sun Belt for first time

The NHL is about to stage a very non-traditional pair of conference finals. Every game will be played in the Sun Belt for the first time, with not an Original Six franchise in sight.

“It’s the four best teams left. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, right?,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said Tuesday. “There’s that old tradition, the Original Six and someone’s usually there, but that’s just the way it falls this year.”

Carolina will take on the Florida Panthers in the East final, with Game 1 on Thursday night. The Dallas Stars and the Golden Knights open the West final Friday night in Las Vegas.

“It’s a lot more fun. It’s a lot more of a party, it really is,” first-year Dallas coach Pete DeBoer said. “The traditional markets, you go to a game, and I’m Canadian, but you go to a game in Toronto ... it’s very reserved, very corporate. You come to these games, it’s a party, and Vegas is the same.”

DeBoer, who was Cassidy's predecessor in Vegas and also coached at Florida, believes this kind of final four is exactly what Commissioner Gary Bettman predicted when the NHL instituted a salary cap in 2005 after a yearlong lockout and made parity a priority.

“It's fantastic. ... If you’re one of the 16 (playoff) teams, everyone feels like they have a chance to win the Stanley Cup if you’re one of those teams,” said DeBoer, who is in a conference final with his fourth different team. "That’s not the same in every sport. I think there’s some preconceived notions about the two or three teams that are going to be left standing at the end of the day in some of the other major sports. And it’s usually accurate every year.”

Even with Sun Belt teams filling every spot in the conference finals for the first time, this quartet isn't new to the playoffs. All have made it to a Stanley Cup Final, with Dallas winning it all in 1999 and Carolina the 2006 championship.

The Stars have gone to two other Stanley Cup finals since the franchise moved south from Minnesota in 1993, the same year the expansion Panthers came into the league. The Hartford Whalers moved to Carolina and became the Hurricanes in 1997. Vegas is in only its sixth year as a franchise, making the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural expansion season and missing the playoffs only once since.

When the Stars lost to Tampa Bay in six games in 2020, it was the “southernmost” Stanley Cup Final — except that entire postseason was played in Canada after the regular season was interrupted and shortened because of the pandemic. That was the second of the Lightning's three Cup titles.

Carolina is in the playoffs for the fifth straight year and back in the East final for the first time since 2019. The Hurricanes finished with the league’s second-best record behind Boston and hold home-ice advantage for the rest of the postseason.

It’s been a big few months for the franchise, which hosted its first Stadium Series game in February and drew a sellout crowd of nearly 57,000 across the street from its PNC Arena home at North Carolina State’s football stadium in Raleigh.

That’s been part of a larger trend of so-called non-traditional markets drawing marquee league events such as outdoor games to Nashville and Dallas — a crowd of 85,630 was at Cotton Bowl Stadium when the Stars hosted the Predators on New Year’s Day 2020. Florida hosted this year’s All-Star Game, and next month's draft is in Nashville.

“I think it says a lot about how the game is growing, No. 1, and where’ve brought it to places and fans that never would have probably thought it 20 years ago or 30 or whatever,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “You wouldn’t envision this happening.”

It’s a particularly exciting time in South Florida, with the NBA’s Miami Heat in the conference finals along with the Panthers. Both took similar paths this season — struggles in the regular season, a late-season rally just to get into the playoffs, ousting No. 1 overall seeds in the first round and now peaking at the right time.

Miami was a football market forever, until the Heat started winning. But with sold-out crowds and interest at an all-time high, the Panthers — who made the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, their third season after being an expansion team — truly believe they have carved out enough support to say their area is a hockey town now as well.

“The whole playoffs, it’s been amazing,” Florida captain Aleksander Barkov said. “The past few years here, hockey has been growing and so has the interest in this organization and team. Obviously, the results (help) — we’ve been in the playoffs for the past couple years and that makes a big difference, too. The crowd supports us here and that gives us an extra boost.”

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AP Sports Writers Mark Anderson, Aaron Beard and Tim Reynolds contributed to this report.

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports