- Associated Press - Thursday, April 26, 2012

GLENDALE, ARIZ. (AP) - The Phoenix Coyotes roused a dormant fan base with an energetic season-ending burst that carried into the playoffs.

Lunch-pail likable and brilliantly resilient, they have made hockey cool in the desert again and given the NHL playoffs a distinctive new vibe by reaching the second round for the first time in a quarter century.

And they’re not alone.

After years of the same handful of teams competing for the Cup, Lord Stanley’s sterling mug has some new pursuers.

Red Wings, Canucks, Blackhawks, Bruins _ they’re all gone. In their place, still in the chase, are Coyotes, Predators, Kings and Blues.

Parity has taken over in the NHL playoffs, raising the possibility that the Stanley Cup could end up in a place like Nashville or Glendale, Ariz.

“You look at who’s out: Detroit, San Jose and on and on,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. “And look at Chicago. That’s a team that could easily be playing in the finals. That’s how tight things are.”

Prior to the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL had what felt like an inevitable march toward the end.

From the `90s forward, teams like Pittsburgh, Detroit, New Jersey and Colorado took turns trading the Cup, combining for nine titles in a 13-year span. Before that was the Great One’s reign in Edmonton, the New York Islanders’ dominance and the Montreal monster that seemed to exist since the creation of the NHL.

Tampa Bay broke up the monopoly in 2004, the year before the lockout, and the change continued after the players returned and the salary cap was put in place, leveling the rink so small-market teams had a chance.

Since the lockout, there have been six different champions, though there still were plenty of intriguing matchups: a pair of Detroit-Pittsburgh finals, Chicago’s drought-ending victory over the similarly long-suffering Flyers and last year’s don’t-change-the-channel matchup between Boston and Vancouver.

This year’s Stanley Cup finals could be Florida against Nashville.

That’s not a bad thing, just different.

“It’s great for the game and great for different markets,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “For my standpoint, every year with the salary cap the way it is, it’s going to be like this going forward that once you get in, it’s going to be anyone’s sort of ballgame, if you will.”

It’s already been that way this year, particularly in the wild Western Conference.

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