TORONTO (Reuters) - A series of first round upsets has thrown the chase for the Stanley Cup wide open, stoking the championship hopes of outsiders and underdogs with the second round set to begin on Thursday.
Hockey-mad Canadians, hoping to tap into the Olympic gold medal mojo from earlier in the year, have an eye on Vancouver and another on Montreal as the Canucks and Canadiens continue their drives to end a long Stanley Cup drought.
Not since the Canadiens landed the trophy in 1993 has Lord Stanley’s famous mug been paraded through the streets of a Canadian city and with two teams still standing among the final eight, residents of the Great White North believe the time for another party has finally arrived.
While the Canadiens’ shock win over the Washington Capitals provided the first round stunner it was by no means the only upset.
The NHL playoffs got off to a rollercoaster start with the three top seeds in the East conference -- Washington, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres -- all eliminated.
In the West the top three seeds -- San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks -- all cleared the first hurdle but not without some heart-stopping scrapes.
The best-of-seven conference semi-finals open in the West on Thursday with the Sharks hosting the resurgent Detroit Red Wings. Chicago welcome Vancouver for Game One on Saturday.
The East semi-finals have the sixth seeded Boston Bruins facing off against seventh seeded Philadelphia Flyers, who only squeaked into the post-season with a shootout win over the New York Rangers, while the Penguins and Canadiens open on Friday at the Igloo in Pittsburgh.
If the Canadiens are to continue their magical run, much will depend on Slovakian netminder Jaroslav Halak, who has conjured up memories of Montreal goaltending greats Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy with his spectacular playoff performances.
With his team on the brink of elimination, Halak became a wall in the Montreal net stopping 131 of 134 shots as the Canadiens fashioned one of the great Stanley Cup comebacks, becoming the first number eight seed to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a series.
Having shut down the Capitals’ top ranked attack the task ahead is no less daunting for the Canadiens as they prepare to take on the rested and ready Penguins led by Vancouver Olympic hero Sidney Crosby.
The Penguins displayed one or two wobbles in a challenging six-game series win over the Ottawa Senators that included a triple overtime loss in Game Five, but have generally played with the cool composure of a champion.
Crosby, who scored the golden goal to give Canada an overtime victory over the United States in the Olympic men’s ice hockey final, has been on a tear, piling up 14 points against the Senators to put him on pace to break Wayne Gretzky’s all-time post-season scoring record.
While the Penguins and Canadiens can expect to produce plenty of offensive fireworks the series between the Big Bad Bruins and Broad Street Bullies is likely to be a bruising affair between two teams known more for their rugged style than offensive flair.
There is also no shortage of bad blood in the West, where the Canucks, led by gold medal winning netminder Roberto Luongo, will be looking for revenge against the Blackhawks who knocked them out at the stage last season.
The Sharks, who have consistently finished at the top of the West standings but displayed little bite in the post-season, face a Red Wings team that has taken flight since the Olympic break.
Editing by Kevin Fylan