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The Fab Four: It's an NHL dream scenario as conference finals feature past four champions

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

For the first time since 1945, when there were only six teams in the NHL and Gordie Howe was still a kid in Saskatchewan, we have a tournament of champions.

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Jarome Iginla picked Pittsburgh at the trade deadline to play with Sidney Crosby & Co. (Reuters)

Each of the final four teams in the playoffs won the Stanley Cup in the past four years. It’s down to Pittsburgh (2009), Chicago (2010), Boston (2011) and Los Angeles (2012). It’s down to the best.

In our humble estimation, these were the top four teams in the NHL entering the playoffs. They were the top four teams in our Round 1 power rankings. Pittsburgh and Boston were the top two teams in the East and Chicago and Los Angeles were the top two teams in the West in our Round 2 power rankings.

Only two teams have won the Cup twice since 1999: the Detroit Red Wings (2002, 2008) and New Jersey Devils (2000, 2003). No one has won the Cup twice since the salary cap was introduced in 2005-06. That’s about to change, and the Kings have a chance to become the first repeat champions since the Wings in 1997 and ’98.

Is this a blow to the league’s beloved parity? No. It’s a testament to these organizations that they have put themselves in this position despite the league’s beloved parity.

The Penguins, Blackhawks, Bruins and Kings have something else in common: All four survived scares in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Three faced elimination, and two came perilously close to going home.

These teams have smart coaches and deep, talented rosters glittering with Cup rings. All four were good enough to be champions once, all four are good enough to be champions again, and all four have had the hallmarks of championship runs – overcoming adversity against worthy adversaries, thanks to clutch play and a little luck.

Whoever wins this final four will be the best of the best – and the closest thing to a dynasty in today’s NHL.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

How good are the Penguins? The Bruins, who won the Cup more recently than they did, can play the underdog card with a straight face. Milan Lucic compared the Penguins to the Miami Heat. Not only do the Pens have as star-studded a group as you’ll find in the salary-cap era, they have it because guys wanted to play together.

[Related: Top 10 must-watch storylines in Penguins-Bruins showdown]

Jarome Iginla took his talents to Steel City to play with Sidney Crosby a little like LeBron James took his talents to South Beach to play with Dwyane Wade. Iginla didn’t sign as a free agent, but he made a “Decision.” He waived his no-trade clause for Pittsburgh when the Calgary Flames had worked out a deal with another team – and, of course, that other team was Boston, one of the subplots in a series full of them.

The Penguins should be the favorites. They have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and so on, and Crosby has recovered from his broken jaw to the point where he doesn’t need that plastic protective shield anymore.

They are averaging 4.27 goals per game – more than a goal more than the next-best team, the Bruins (3.17). They just ripped through the Ottawa Senators in five games, and the Sens were a better defensive team than the Bruins were in the regular season, giving up 2.08 goals per game, second in the league, while the Bruins gave up 2.21 goals per game, third in the league.

They have handled the Bruins well. They have won the past six regular-games between the teams and the past six in Boston, too. Note that the Bruins did not have to face the Penguins on their way to the Cup in 2011, when Crosby and Malkin were injured and the Pens lost in the first round.

Pittsburgh has faced the least adversity of the final four. The Pens haven’t trailed in a series yet. The Blackhawks and Kings each have faced two-game deficits, and the Bruins have faced a three-goal deficit in the third period of a Game 7.

That said, the eighth-seeded New York Islanders came back twice to tie their first-round series with the Penguins and had a chance to do it again before falling in overtime of Game 6. Even though Tomas Vokoun has calmed the crease since replacing Marc-Andre Fleury, there is still a chance that leaky defense and goaltending could put the heat on the NHL’s Heat.

2. Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks cruised through the regular season and the first round of the playoffs. They started a record 24 games without a regulation loss, half the lockout-shortened 48-game schedule. They won the Presidents’ Trophy for leading the league with 77 points. Then they whipped the Minnesota Wild in five games.

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Chicago battled back from a 3-1 series deficit in Round 2 and should be brimming with confidence. (AP)

In short, they looked like a Cup contender for the first time since they shipped out half their 2010 Cup team in a salary-cap purge. The core has been supplemented by a strong supporting cast again, including top-notch goaltending.

But that 2010 Cup team didn’t cruise through the playoffs, falling behind in two series and coming back, battling through a tough final against the Philadelphia Flyers, and this team wasn’t tested until the second round against the Detroit Red Wings.

The ’Hawks hadn’t lost three in a row all year; they lost three in a row to the Wings. They hadn’t been shut out all year; they were shut out in Game 4. Suddenly they faced a 3-1 deficit.

But they came back with a dominating victory in Game 5. They came back from a one-goal deficit in the third period of Game 6. They came back when the apparent winning goal was wiped out by a penalty call in the final moments of regulation in Game 7, and they won the series in overtime.

Jonathan Toews still has to score more. One goal is not enough, no matter how much he contributes in other areas. The power play remains brutal. How a team with Toews and Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook cannot score more often with more players on the ice is one of hockey’s great mysteries.

But this is a team with mojo now. While Jimmy Howard was outstanding for Detroit, Corey Crawford was outstanding for Chicago. When he did allow a soft goal, he shook it off. While Toews wasn’t noticeable at times, guys like Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw seemed all over the place. After struggling badly and seeing his ice time dwindle, Seabrook recovered later in the Detroit series, played well and ended up the OT hero.

3. Los Angeles Kings

They knew this time it would be different. They knew they would not take 3-0 leads in each series, would not waltz through without facing elimination, would not finish an astonishing 16-4 like they did in last year’s playoffs.

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Kings goalie Jonathan Quick looks like a playoff MVP again. (AP)

And boy, has it been different. The Kings fell into a 2-0 hole in their first-round series against the St. Louis Blues. They got into a seesaw second-round series with the San Jose Sharks. In the first two rounds last year, they played only nine games. In the first two rounds this year, they played 13 games. Another way to look at it: They have played only one less game in two rounds than they played in three last year.

But after falling into that 2-0 hole against the Blues, they won four straight, and at the end of that seesaw series with the Sharks, they finished on the upswing in Game 7. They became the first defending champion to make a conference final since the Wings did it in 2009.

And through it all, there was one striking similarity to last year – the performance of goaltender Jonathan Quick, the reigning winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player.

Quick started slowly in the regular season thanks to off-season back surgery and the lockout. But he is in top form now – aggressive, athletic, confident, competitive. He has allowed 20 goals in those 13 games – and just 14 of them at even strength. He leads the playoffs in goals-against average (1.50), save percentage (.948) and shutouts (three).

If the Kings win the Cup again, Quick likely will have to win the Conn Smythe again. They’re averaging only two goals per game – less than half the Penguins’ production, less than two-thirds the Bruins’ production, three-quarters of a goal less than the Blackhawks. They are 1-5 on the road, after winning their first 10 road games last year, and they will not have home-ice advantage from here on out.

The Blackhawks have just as much depth as the Kings. They have a mobile, puck-moving defense that can diffuse the Kings’ forecheck. But the ’Hawks had trouble in the second round when the Wings outworked them and got great goaltending, and the Kings, with their size and grit and Quick, are even more capable of doing the same.

4. Boston Bruins

In 2011, the Bruins fell behind in their first-round series with the Montreal Canadiens, 2-0. Had they lost, it likely would have meant the end of coach Claude Julien and maybe others. They ended up winning the series in overtime of Game 7, then swept the Flyers in the second round on their way to the Cup.

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The Bruins are very similar to the team that won the Cup in 2011. (AP)

This year, the Bruins pulled ahead in their first-round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-1. But they lost the next two and faced a 4-1 deficit in the third period of Game 7. Had they lost, it likely would have meant the end of Julien and maybe others. They ended up scoring three goals – two in the final two minutes – to tie the game. They won in overtime, then blew through the New York Rangers in five games in the second round.

This is virtually the same deep, balanced, experienced team that won the Cup two years ago. Tim Thomas isn’t in goal anymore. But Tuukka Rask is up to the task – and has Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron in front of him – and the Bruins have found a little bit of that magic. They suffered injuries to three veteran defensemen: Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden. Yet youngsters Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton stepped right in against the Rangers.

Krug has four goals and five points in five games. Let’s repeat that. Let’s let that sink in. Krug, a 5-foot-9, 22-year-old rookie defenseman, a guy who was never drafted and has only three games of regular-season experience, has four goals and five points in five playoff games. It is an amazing story.

Problem is, it’s not sustainable, and it’s not good that Krug has more goals than Jaromir Jagr (zero), Tyler Seguin (one) and Brad Marchand (two) combined.

In 2011, the Bruins battled through two seven-game series in the final two rounds. They might have to do the same again to win the Cup again. But do you think they’re afraid of that when they’ve done it before? Do you think big, bad Milan Lucic is intimidated? If the Indiana Pacers can play with the NBA’s Heat – that Eastern Conference final is tied, 2-2 – don’t you think the Bruins can play with the NHL’s?

Don’t you think that in this tournament of champions it’s anyone’s Cup?

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