No one could have predicted this for the Stanley Cup playoffs. No one. Not even NHL Nostradamus Barry Melrose himself could have seen it coming.
In the Eastern Conference, the No. 1 seed New York Rangers battled all the way through back-to-back seven-game series to make it to the conference finals, only to find themselves matched up against their bridge-and-tunnel nemesis, the Atlantic Division rival New Jersey Devils.
Of course, though the Rangers entered the playoffs in the top slot, there was plenty of parity: five teams in the Eastern Conference finished the 2011-2012 season with just over 100 points.
Thus, it should be no surprise these two teams have had to fight to get where they are—and yet, it is. The Rangers were supposed to roll, and instead they struggled. Many, in fact, had already counted the team out.
But how fitting that the Rangers should make it to this point, only to find themselves pitted once more against the boys from across the Hudson?
The Rangers franchise won the Stanley Cup in 1994, famously breaking a 54-year curse. It's a good story, but it hardly plays to their favor, especially because since then, the Devils have won the Cup three times.
In the Western Conference, each of the two remaining teams fighting to punch their tickets to the Stanley Cup finals is something of a surprise: Neither one was supposed to be here.
The Phoenix Coyotes won their first-ever Pacific Division title this season—even as the Winnipeg Jets, the franchise had never managed the feat—and they’ve defeated both the Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators en route to their first-ever berth in the conference finals.
Who will win the 2012 Stanley Cup?
As unexpected a contender as the Coyotes are, they find themselves facing off against the true Cinderella team in the West, the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings.
And though the Kings barely qualified (and even finished the regular season with back-to-back losses), they’re certainly not playing like a team that limped into the playoffs. After toppling the No. 1 seed Vancouver Canucks four games to one, they cruised through a four-game sweep of the second-seeded St. Louis Blues.
The Kings are playing well, no question. But this, too, is rare territory for the Kings franchise: The last and only time the Kings ever made the Western Conference finals was in 1993.
Led by Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille on the ice (and, by coincidence, by coach Barry Melrose off it), the Kings played their way to the Stanley Cup Finals, only to at last be stonewalled by the Montreal Canadiens and Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy.
However it shakes out, whoever wins the West will be battling both a formidable opponent and the forces of history when the Stanley Cup finals swing around at the end of the month. The Vegas oddsmakers have the Kings meeting the Rangers when the dust settles—but for now, that's just speculation.
Indeed, for now, it's time to play hockey.