Western Conference finals set: (3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings

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The Pacific Division didn’t do much for the hockey world during the regular season, but the supposedly lowly group will represent the West in the Stanley Cup finals this year. Now it’s down to which team will go as the third-seeded Phoenix Coyotes will face the West’s No. 8 team the Los Angeles Kings.

This represents the Coyotes’ first-ever trip to the conference finals on the heels of their first Pacific Division title and first series win since they won one as the Winnipeg Jets in 1987. (Sorry, but that always needs to be in bold.)

Meanwhile, the Kings are on their greatest run since the days of Wayne Gretzky, John Candy in the stands and the last gasps of the pre-Dead Puck Era.* Los Angeles was a regular season letdown if you consider many pundits’ picks, yet they’re looking like the contending team many expected – and more – after beating the top two teams in the West while losing just one playoff game.

The Coyotes and Kings took three games apiece in their six regular season contests. Both are red-hot. On paper, Los Angeles is sexier yet Phoenix has the possibly-important home ice edge. So who do you think is going to take it?

* – The Kings made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993. By ’95, the New Jersey Devils shocked the Detroit Red Wings and were subsequently blamed for the trap and whatever was wrong with the economy.

Blues re-sign goalie Binnington

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Jordan Binnington, the netminder taken 88th overall by the Blues in 2011, has signed a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced on Friday.

Binnington, 24, has played almost exclusively with St. Louis’ AHL affiliate since turning pro four years ago, though he did spend some time in the ECHL.

Last year he worked alongside Ville Husso and Pheonix Copley in the Wolves’ goal, and will likely do so again with Husso moving forward (Copley was traded to Washington as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk deal.)

Binnington’s NHL body of work is brief — one 13-minute relief appearance during the ’15-16 campaign. Right now he’s jockeying with Husso to be the organization’s No. 3 netminder, a potential call-up should either Jake Allen or Carter Hutton get hurt.

Chris Neil wants a one-way deal, and says he’s received offers

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Here’s what we know about veteran tough guy Chris Neil.

He won’t be back in Ottawa, the city where he’s spent his entire 15-year career. But he does want to keep playing. What’s more, he’s not ready to accept a two-way deal or training camp PTO, because offers for a one-way deal have already come in.

“The offers I’ve had so far haven’t been [two way or PTO]. They’ve been a one-way deal,” the 37-year-old forward said, per the Ottawa Sun. “For me, that’s what I’d be looking for.

“It’s up in the air right now. There’s some interest. There’s some teams you’d prefer over others.”

Neil was informed by the Sens last month that he wouldn’t be brought back next season, which marked the end of an era. Ottawa took Neil in the sixth round of the 1998 draft, and he made his NHL debut three years later. He went on to become one of the club’s most recognizable players, in large part to his pugilistic ways — during the 2003-04 campaign, he fought a remarkable 24 times.

That trademark toughness could be something teams are interested in bringing aboard. There were rumblings St. Louis was eyeing him after trading Ryan Reaves to Pittsburgh, with Fox Sports Midwest reporting that Neil had three offers on the table.

If there’s one thing that’s for certain, it’s that Neil believes he can still play. After learning that he wouldn’t be brought back to the Canadian capital, he had some choice words for Sens head coach Guy Boucher and the perceived lack of opportunity Boucher afforded him.

“I have a lot of respect for Randy [Lee, Sens assistant GM] and Pierre [Dorion, GM] … I think, if it was up to them, I’d be back,” Neil explained, per the Citizen. “But they kind of put it in the coach’s hands and that had a lot to do with it. For whatever reason, Guy [Boucher] never really gave me the chance to show I can play.

“Even before I got hurt, I was a healthy scratch for a couple of games and I saw the writing on the wall.”

After tough year in Florida, Smith ready to reunite with ‘players-first’ Gallant

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For Reilly Smith, the anticipation of playing for Las Vegas next season goes beyond playing for the league’s newest team.

It’s also about playing for his old coach, Gerard Gallant.

“I think he kind of embodies the motto that it’s a players-first league and everything kind of revolves around that,” Smith said, per the Golden Knights website. “I know particularly last year in the Florida Panthers organization, there was a lot of change and things going on and I know one of the main messages that he always put forth was that whatever goes on outside, make sure you guys are a tight-knit group inside and play for each other.

“That was one thing that he definitely tried to convey to the team and try to get us to rally behind.”

Smith’s time in Florida was a two-part tale.

After coming over from Boston as part of the Jimmy Hayes swap — Marc Savard’s contract was also shipped to Florida — Smith had a terrific ’15-16 campaign under Gallant, posting career highs in goals (25) while helping the Panthers qualify for the playoffs.

In the postseason, he was a consistent scoring threat, finishing the series with four goals and eight points in six games.

Year two wasn’t nearly as successful.

Gallant was fired early on — controversially so — and Smith’s production dropped off. He ended with just 15 goals and 37 points, disappointing figures that were exacerbated by the big five-year, $25 million extension he signed in the offseason.

Reading between the lines, fair to suggest Smith struggled with the coaching change from Gallant to Tom Rowe. Things came to a head in early March, when Rowe called out Smith following a loss to Dallas.

On the Stars’ first goal, Smith seemed to lose his man in front of the net. Rowe was asked about it, and responded.

“We went over that exact play in team meeting and we haven’t learned our lesson yet,” he said. “That is the problem.”

Rowe wasn’t done there. Later, he was asked about Dallas’ winning goal, which may have been deflected in off a skate. The criticism went back to Smith.

“I don’t know,” said Rowe. “All I know is Reilly Smith was blowing the zone doing exactly what he is not supposed to be doing.”

Smith will certainly be a guy to watch this season. He’s still only 26 years old, looking for a bounce back, and noted that Gallant gave him the opportunity to play a larger role than he had with the Bruins (and, prior to that, the Stars).

One wonders if that’ll happen again, this time in Vegas.

Subban ‘can’t really envision’ Habs without Markov

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The Montreal Canadiens’ defense looks a lot different than it did two years ago.

For the second offseason in a row, the Canadiens have walked away from a seemingly important puck-moving defenseman. Last summer, they traded P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber, and yesterday they announced that they were parting ways with Andrei Markov.

Markov and Subban played a lot of minutes together during their time time in Montreal. The two even became good friends (Subban attended Markov’s wedding earlier this month).

Needless to say, when Subban found out that Markov wasn’t going to be returning to the Canadiens, he was pretty surprised.

“I can’t really envision the Montreal Canadiens without Andrei Markov on the blue line. That’s No. 1. Even before I played for the team, I watched him play for the team and be their best defenseman,” The Preds defenseman told NHL.com’s Arpon Basu. “Even while I was there, I still thought he was our best defenseman, even though a lot of people thought because of what I got paid it was me. You can’t really put a price tag on how he plays because he’s so smart, the way he sees the ice.”

With those two players no longer on the team, it’ll be interesting to see who moves the puck for the Habs. Shea Weber is still playing at a high level, but carrying the puck up the ice isn’t his strongest attribute.

GM Marc Bergevin added Mark Streit, Karl Alzner and David Schlemko this offseason, but none of those guys can do the things Markov is capable of doing when it comes to moving the puck efficiently.

Is there another move on the horizon?

Well, Montreal has a huge hole on the left side of their defense and they have over $8 million in cap space. Maybe there is something brewing.

Related:

Andrei Markov opts for KHL after saying goodbye to Canadiens

Habs president pens glowing farewell letter to Markov

Habs sign Streit–is he Markov’s replacement?