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2000s: The Decade in Sports
Posted: Monday December 14, 2009 11:14AM; Updated: Monday December 14, 2009 11:16AM

NHL: Highlights and lowlights (cont.)

By Michael Farber, SI.com

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alexander-ovechkin.jpg
He shoots, he scores: Alex Ovechkin can light the lamp from this position, too.
AP

SIGNATURE PLAY: Alexander Ovechkin's highlight goal; Jan. 16, 2006
His tally against Phoenix is the reason the Good Lord invented YouTube. Hit the replay button. Now, again. Again. (We're channeling our inner Herb Brooks here.) Try describing, in 50 words or less, the goal that the Capitals' rookie left wing scored that day. Here's our feeble attempt: He barrels down the right side, fights off a defenseman, crosses over in front of the crease, falls, hooks the puck with the crook of his blade and shovels it past goalie Brian Boucher while on his back. Actually, we prefer Coyotes' analyst Darren Pang's post-goal comment: "Holy jumpin' ... You got to be kidding me."

MOST OUTSTANDING SINGLE-GAME PERFORMANCE: Marian Gaborik; Dec. 20, 2007
In a display of unsurpassed virtuosity, the Wild winger scored on the Rangers by (in order) rifling a one-timer, batting the puck out of the air on the power play, shoveling in a power-play backhander, batting another puck out of the air and cashing a breakaway. That's five goals. Said New York captain and current teammate Chris Drury, from whom Gaborik stole the puck on the breakaway, "He could have had seven or eight." Indeed, Steve Valiquette, who replaced Lundqvist in goal, made a sparkling pad save to deny Gaborik late in the game. Gaborik also assisted on the one Minnesota goal he didn't score in the 6-3 victory.

Click here for a gallery of memorable performances of the decade

BIGGEST VILLAIN: Todd Bertuzzi
There was a time, roughly between 2002 and 2004, when this hulking presence on the West Coast Express line was hockey's fiercest power forward. Then his life -- and that of Colorado's Steve Moore -- changed forever. In the third period of a game on March 8, 2004, Bertuzzi, in evident retaliation for a borderline hit that Moore had made on linemate Markus Naslund in a previous game, stalked the Avalanche forward and sucker-punched him in the back of the head. Moore went down and Bertuzzi landed on him, driving his face into the ice. Moore suffered a neck injury that ended his career. The NHL suspended Bertuzzi -- ultimately the incident wound up costing him about $500,000 in salary -- while the Crown in British Columbia also weighed in, pressing criminal charges. Bertuzzi ultimately accepted a plea deal for assault.

BEST TEAM RIVALRY: Penguins vs. Flyers
The decade had nothing resembling the Hatfields-McCoys lunacy of Colorado vs. Detroit in the '90s, so the Penguins and Flyers will have to do. Primeau's goal in the fifth overtime of their first-round playoff game in 2000 was a singular moment between the franchises, but the rivalry didn't warm until 2005 with the arrival of Sidney Crosby. Or, as they call him in Philly, Cindy Crosby. Crosby's debut in Philadelphia on Nov. 16, 2005, didn't go at all well. Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher whacked him with his stick across the mouth -- no call -- and Crosby's subsequent complaints earned him an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The playoff series in 2008 and 2009 -- including Crosby's battles with Mike Richards -- made for outstanding hockey theater.

BEST INDIVIDUAL RIVALRY: Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin
The NHL made a delightful commercial in 2008 in which Ovechkin orders half the room-service menu ("five lobsters ... lots of ketchup") and then gives his name as Sidney Crosby. (Crosby's one line, when he sees the room service carts, is, "Ovechkin.") Well, they are what they ate, or at least what Ovechkin ordered: lip-smackin' terrific. In a sense, this is a virtual rivalry -- unlike, say, Crosby or Ovechkin vs. the Flyers' Richards --- because they rarely share the ice. Just the spotlight. The second-round Pittsburgh-Washington series in 2009 was a magical seven games of Can You Top This? They each had eight goals. Ovechkin had six assists, one more than Crosby. Amazing.

MOST COLORFUL PLAYER: Alexander Ovechkin
Whether he is riding a Zamboni outside Madison Square Garden or scoring physics-defying goals, Ovechkin has been the most exciting player on NHL ice since Gilbert Perreault and the most Bunyanesque character off it since 1970s bon vivant Derek Sanderson. Ovechkin is a worth-the-price-of-admission guy, a dervish with a feral hunger for goals and hits. His enthusiasm remains remarkable. (That said, we could have been spared that "hot stick" goal celebration when he netted his 50th in 2009. At first glance, he looked like he was giving the stick CPR.).

BEST INNOVATION: The shootout
As Kings coach Terry Murray said last October, "I hate the shootout" -- his team had just lost one -- "but fans love it." What's not to love, except its brevity? (There should be five shooters, not three.) If the shootout remains an unabashed gimmick, it's one that works because it determines a winner and loser, the outcome for an investment of $50 and two-and-a-half hours that everyone outside of soccer fans have come to expect. The shootout rewards skill and occasional creativity, even from unlikely sources. In 2005, shortly after the concept was introduced, Rangers defenseman Marek Malik, who isn't exactly Bobby Orr, won a shootout in the 15th round against the Capitals with a shot between his legs. This was the best 15-rounder at Madison Square Garden since Ali-Frazier.

WORST INNOVATION: The loser point
Along with four-on-four overtime and the shootout came the consolation prize. You do win for losing in the NHL, as long as you have evened the score after the regulation 60 minutes. Not only has the loser point sucked the life out of many games that are tied late in the third period, it has skewed standings with three-point games. (This season Toronto had twice as many points in October from losses than wins.) The current standings -- with headings W, L, OTL, SL, PTS -- aren't read as much as decoded. A simple W, L (and maybe a GB, like baseball) would make four-on-four and the shootout more than a sop to fans and add much needed transparency.

BEST NEW ARENA: Xcel Energy Center, Minnesota
Opened in 2000, it has all the amenities of a new millennium building. (Love that Minnesota-style lodge on ice level.) But congratulations to the Wild for making it the best of the modern rinks. The Wild genuflects to high school hockey in the state, hanging jerseys of all the teams in the concourse. It also has the endearing, albeit dopey, tradition of some quasi-known figure saying, "Let's play hockey" before the opening puck drop. Of course, Minnesota fans make the building. They are pleasant, knowledgeable and supportive -- probably more than the team deserves.

BIGGEST NEAR-MISS: Jim Balsillie attempt to buy the Coyotes, 2009
The future of more than a franchise rested in the hands of a Phoenix bankruptcy court judge with the mellifluous name of Redfield T. Baum. If Baum had ruled (against a 26-0 vote of the NHL's Board of Governors) that Balsillie had the best bid for the franchise, pro sports could have turned into a free-for-all. In theory, any potential owner could then have bought -- and relocated -- a team, league rules and wishes be damned. Judge Baum ultimately rejected both Balsillie's and the NHL's bids, but in November awarded the team to the league after it tweaked its bid. Balsillie, the Research in Motion co-CEO, chose not to drag out the legal proceedings with an appeal. That sound you heard was all pro sports franchises heaving a sigh of relief.

2000s: The Decade in the NHL
ARTICLES GALLERIES
Farber: Highlights and lowlights
Farber: All-Decade team
Muir: 10 signature moments
Muir: Trades, free agency and the draft
 

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