No Canada, but the NHL's final four could still be fun

CBC Sports' daily newsletter previews the NHL's conference finals, where four Sun Belt teams remain in a wide-open chase for the Stanley Cup.

The Cup is up for grabs entering an all-Sun Belt conference finals

Brent Burns, in white with a bushy beard and missing front teeth, high-fives Carolina teammates along the bench.
Brent Burns is the (heavily bearded) face of the new Stanley Cup favourites, the Carolina Hurricanes. (Paul Sancya/The Associated Press)

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The days are getting longer, the temperature is getting warmer, and our favourite NHL teams are gone from the playoffs. In other words, a typical late May here in Canada.

While the abrupt second-round exits of the Oilers and Leafs took much of the air out of the Stanley Cup tournament, the conference finals might still be entertaining if you know where to look. Here are a few things to know as Florida and Carolina open the Eastern final tonight and Dallas and Vegas begin their Western series tomorrow:

Nobody saw this coming.

Heading into the playoffs, none of the remaining teams ranked in the top four of the betting odds to win the Cup. Their implied title chances ranged from a bit under 8 per cent (Carolina) down to less than 3.5 per cent (Florida), with Vegas and Dallas both in the neighbourhood of 6 per cent.

The betting markets gave Boston, Edmonton, Colorado and Toronto the best shots at the Cup, only to see the Presidents' Trophy-winning Bruins and defending-champion Avalanche flame out in the first round. As many Canadian fans (and TV execs) salivated at the likelihood of an Oilers-Leafs final, things went south — literally. The NHL is billing this as its "southernmost" final four ever and the first time in Stanley Cup playoffs history that all of the semifinalists are based in Sun Belt states.

While Florida, Dallas, Las Vegas and the Carolinas can be pretty hot places, they're hardly traditional hockey hotbeds. None of these teams have been in their current locations for more than 30 years, and the Golden Knights are just five years old. The four franchises have combined to win just two Stanley Cups, by Carolina in 2006 and Dallas in 1999.

But these teams are all very good.

Carolina's run to the final four shouldn't be much of a surprise. It posted the second-best record in the league this season and won its division for the third straight year. The Hurricanes lack a lights-out scorer (Martin Necas led them this season with just 71 points, Sebastian Aho was tops with a relatively modest 36 goals) and many figured that injuries to Andrei Svechnikov, Max Pacioretty and Teuvo Teravainen would downgrade them to a tropical storm. But Carolina comes at you in waves and features one of the top offensive defencemen of his time in bushy-bearded, gap-toothed veteran Brent Burns. Carolina subdued the Islanders in six in the first round before blowing away a good young Devils team in five.

Vegas also won its division before dusting off a wild card (Winnipeg) in the opening round, paving the way for its mild upset of Pacific rival Edmonton. The Oilers had the two best players in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. But the Golden Knights cut down their top-heavy foes with superior depth and a nice pair of forwards of their own in Jack Eichel and Mark Stone, both averaging above a point per game in the playoffs. Stone missed the last three months of the regular season but hit the ground running in his return from back surgery.

After getting past perennial first-round fodder Minnesota in six, Dallas caught a break when Seattle shocked defending Cup champion Colorado. Peter DeBoer's team slayed the Kraken in seven (the coach is now a lucky 7-0 in those games) and has the star power to go all the way. Roope Hintz is not a household name, but it might soon be engraved on the Conn Smythe Trophy as the big Finn ranks second in the playoffs in both points (19) and goals (nine) through 13 games. Jason Robertson potted 46 goals in the regular season, goalie Jake Oettinger is capable of stealing games and Joe Pavelski is a great story. The 38-year-old forward, who has played 176 playoff games without winning a Cup, became the oldest player in post-season history to score four goals in a game and has eight in eight contests despite missing most of the first round with a concussion. 

Florida is the Cinderella story of the playoffs. After scraping in with the worst record among the 16 qualifiers, the Panthers rallied from 3-1 down in the series to shock a top-ranked Boston team that had just set the NHL record for regular-season wins. Florida followed that up with a stunning five-game victory over Toronto, the fourth-best regular-season team. The big cats are underdogs again vs. Carolina, but this time no one is counting them out. The Panthers feature an MVP finalist in Matthew Tkachuk and a red-hot goalie in two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. A fun wrinkle to this series is that it's the first to include three brothers. Florida's Eric and Marc Staal will face Carolina's Jordan.

The Stanley Cup is very much up for grabs.

Carolina is the slight betting favourite to hoist the Cup, and Vegas is the slight fave to represent the West in the final. But the odds imply that none of the four conference finalists has much better than a 1-in-3 chance or much worse than a 1-in-5 chance of winning the title.

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