- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The NHL’s conference finals opened over the weekend without some of the top teams and big stars that highlighted the regular season.

Long gone are Pittsburgh’s powerful point producers _ Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. With them went the Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Vancouver Canucks, the No. 1 seed in the West, who were trying to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for a second season.

The team that defeated the Canucks last June _ the Boston Bruins _ also are gone, guaranteeing there will be a new champion.

But don’t fret. There is still plenty of glitz and glamour left in the postseason, and ultimately, the possibility of a Broadway-Hollywood championship round. So, as we gaze ahead, let’s look at some questions and offer a few predictions:

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_ WHERE’S THE BEEFS?

Remember all those nasty fights and crippling suspensions that came out of the first two rounds? Yeah, seems long ago. Teams are keeping the peace in the semifinals, with a shot at playing for the Stanley Cup at stake. So did teams just go to their neutral corners and decide to lay low? Somewhat. But mostly the teams that decided to win with their fists _ like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia _ were simply eliminated. Ratings are up and the NHL wants to keep the numbers growing. Teams fighting for the Cup, instead of against each other, will have to spark the interest through the finals.

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_ CAN THE RANGERS SURVIVE THEIR EARLY WORKLOAD?

No team has ever played 14 games in the first two rounds and gone on to win the Stanley Cup. New York will have to do that _ thanks to grueling tests provided by Ottawa and Washington _ if it wants to win its first championship since 1994. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and company looked awfully sharp on Monday night en route to a 3-0 win over New Jersey in Game 1 of the East Finals, so maybe history will be made.

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_ IS THIS MARTIN BRODEUR‘S FAREWELL POSTSEASON?

The veteran goaltender turned 40 years old during the second round against Philadelphia, and has shown some wear and tear at certain points this season. But let’s face it, the Devils are back in the NHL’s semifinals and to think he hasn’t had a good bit to do with it would be naive. A year after missing the postseason for the first time since 1996, Brodeur, a three-time Cup winner, has eight playoff wins and one shutout. He’s been quite sharp, and it’s unlikely that he’d walk away after a series against his team’s biggest rival, the Rangers.

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_ HAVE THE KINGS CAPTURED LOS ANGELES?

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