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NHL's four remaining teams bring good storylines into conference finals

The Canadian Press
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Pittsburgh Penguins\' Jordan Staal, center, celebrates his goal as Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom (19), from Sweden and defenseman Shaone Morrisonn (26) skate nearby during the second period of Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Wednesday, May 13, 2009, in Washington. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Nick Wass Author: The Hockey News

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NHL's four remaining teams bring good storylines into conference finals

The Canadian Press
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There's the upstart, the underdog, the contender and the defending champ.

And, of course, two Staals.

The NHL is down to its final four teams and there are plenty of compelling storylines heading into the conference finals. The most interested observers might be Henry and Linda Staal, who will watch sons Eric (Carolina) and Jordan (Pittsburgh) square off in the Eastern Conference final.

It promises to be an exciting couple of weeks for the family.

"One of us is going to be moving on to the Stanley Cup final and hopefully win that trophy," Eric Staal said Friday on a conference call. "That's the biggest thing. There's two good teams going at it and this is the best time of year to play hockey.

"When you're brothers playing against each other at this time of year in the conference final, it's exciting for not only yourself but the rest of your family for sure."

The Hurricanes are the most surprising team remaining in the final four. They didn't clinch a playoff spot until late in the regular season and ended up with the sixth seed in the East.

However, they've knocked off a pair of 100-point teams in New Jersey and Boston, winning Game 7 on the road to eliminate both. As a result, Carolina has some confidence heading into its third conference final since 2002.

"I really, really like the way our team was playing the last two or three months of the year," said Staal. "I just thought that we got on a roll and we started to play our system, play the way that (coach Paul Maurice) wanted us to play. Then we started to feel comfortable in the close games.

"Once we got into the playoffs, once you get there, you can beat anybody."

They'll open the third round in Pittsburgh on Monday night (TSN, 7:30 p.m. ET).

Led by captain and playoff scoring leader Sidney Crosby, the Penguins are looking to get back to the Stanley Cup final for the second straight year. Several players cited the lessons learned last spring as one of the big things that helped them get past Washington in the second round.

Interestingly, the Penguins and Hurricanes are both teams that responded well to mid-season coaching changes. Pittsburgh was scorching hot after Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien in February while Carolina pulled itself back into playoff contention after Maurice took over for Peter Laviolette in December.

The coaching change came even earlier for the Chicago Blackhawks, who made the playoffs for the first time in six years under Joel Quenneville. He replaced Denis Savard a couple weeks into the season.

The fresh-faced Blackhawks take on the more experienced Detroit Red Wings in a Western Conference final that begins Sunday (TSN, 3 p.m. ET).

Even though Chicago has the look of a team that can contend for years to come, the players are intent on seizing the moment.

"With the salary cap these days, you never know how long you can keep a team together," said second-year Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane. "For us, we want to take advantage of the opportunity we have now. Before the year if you told us we'd be in this position, I don't know if I'd believe you.

"Now it feels like we have a great team - a team that can do some damage."

The Red Wings and Blackhawks faced one another six times during the regular season, including the Outdoor Classic game at Wrigley Field on New Year's Day.

It's no secret that one Original Six team holds an edge in experience over the other. Detroit will be appearing in a conference final for the eighth time in 14 years - a streak that began back in 1995 when it knocked off Chicago. The Blackhawks haven't been back since.

But the players are embracing the new challenge.

"We know that they are the defending champs," said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. "I think there's an honour to play against a team like that and hopefully be the team that knocks them off. It's a huge challenge and a huge opportunity that we're excited about.

"In a lot of ways, the pressure's on them. We're just going to go out there and play and have fun and let loose."

While there is no shortage of enthusiasm in the Windy City, Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom senses the same feeling beginning to grow around his team.

The Red Wings franchise has been the league's most successful over the last 15 years and the players badly want another championship banner for Joe Louis Arena. They're getting closer and closer to that goal.

"You're only one step away from playing in the Stanley Cup final so that in itself just brings the excitement back in our team too," said Lidstrom.

The excitement will certainly be felt at the Staal household in Thunder Bay, Ont., where Henry and Linda are expected to watch the Carolina-Pittsburgh series on television.

The boys would prefer to have their parents stay away until one of them reaches the Stanley Cup.

"I don't think either of us want them to come down," said Eric Staal. "To be honest, I feel bad but it's so hard for our parents. Sometimes when they're at the games, for them they don't know who to cheer for. Did you jump up and cheer for the visiting team when they score? And when the home team scores, you obviously stand up because everyone else is."

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NHL's four remaining teams bring good storylines into conference finals