Looking back on an NHL season full of surprises
With this brief NHL season hurtling to a conclusion like a runaway truck with failing brakes, it's worth taking a breathless glance in the rearview mirror at some of the noteworthy and unexpected things that have happened.
It's been a season of ups and downs and few teams have been able to win consistently. The compressed schedule and lack of practice time probably have a lot to do with that. A few clubs found ways to maintain their strong play, although not necessarily the teams that some expected to excel when the puck dropped in January.
• Many believed the Rangers, who finished first in the East a season ago, would be the top team in the league after adding Rick Nash. It hasn't worked out that way and New York needed to win one of its last two games just to qualify for the playoffs. Nash has played well -- few are more dangerous driving to the net with the puck on their stick -- but the team's depth, character play and defense corps as a whole made less impact than they did last season.
• After loading up with free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild similarly looked like a team destined for a strong regular season. While they played well in spurts, they had yet to clinch a playoff spot with two games left on their schedule. Suter started poorly -- some remarked that he learned that being a top NHL defenseman wasn't easy without Shea Weber as his partner -- but he eventually rediscovered his bearings and will deservedly get some Norris Trophy consideration.
• In a normal year, we might all be raving about the Anaheim Ducks, who've had a surprisingly strong regular season, especially after missing the playoffs last year. They got more balanced scoring this year as well as great play from their top defensemen Francois Beauchemin and Sheldon Souray, which few could have predicted. Both are among the NHL's top plus-minus blueliners. Souray, in fact, heads the list at plus-23. Another surprise contribution came from first-year goalie Viktor Fasth, whose excellent 2.10 goals-against average and .924 save percentage made him a fine partner for Jonas Hiller. The Ducks have clinched the Pacific Division, where they finished on the bottom a season ago, but they've been largely overlooked because of what the Blackhawks have accomplished.
• No image in the mirror stands taller than Chicago's. The Blackhawks went the entire first half of the campaign without a loss in regulation and pretty much kept winning. They ran away and hid from the pack -- and are leading the Ducks by nine points at this writing -- having gotten points in 40 of its 46 games so far, winning 35 of them. The Hawks have only lost three of 23 road games in regulation, and they have a league-best plus-53 goal differential. In one category after another, they sit atop the NHL (OK, they're tied with the Sharks for home ice wins, and the Sharks have one fewer home loss, but San Jose isn't even a .500 team away from the Shark Tank).
You really have to search a bit to find a weakness in the Blackhawks' performance. Here's one: They're only 6-5 in shootouts. Of course, since there are (thankfully) no shootouts in the playoffs, that's not much of a consolation to those looking for reasons not to think they'll be a favorite to, at least, represent the West in the Stanley Cup Final. Lots of credit has to go to GM Stan Bowman for rebuilding a team that he was forced to dismantle for salary cap reasons after its 2010 Cup victory.
• Much credit also has to go to Ray Shero, another son of an NHL coaching legend, for the job he's done assembling a Pittsburgh team that sprinted to the top of the Eastern Conference. Shero's drafting and trading -- especially his three big pickups of veterans Douglas Murray, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla at the trade deadline -- have helped launch the Penguins nine points ahead of the Eastern pack. Those deals have helped soften the blow caused by the loss of the league's best player, Sidney Crosby, who has been out with a broken jaw suffered on March 30.
The Penguins' season was highlighted by a 15-game winning streak that lasted all of March, but they couldn't sustain it in the immediate aftermath of Crosby's injury and fell two games short of the NHL record set by the 1992-93 Pens. The streak also catapulted them to the top of the conference. At the end of February, they were three points behind Montreal for the East's best record. A month later, they were seven points ahead of the Habs.
• The Canadiens were a big surprise for a good chunk of the campaign, but the wheels seem to have fallen off recently. Of course, the same can be said for nearly every team in the Northeast Division: Boston, Ottawa and Toronto have all stumbled as they've approached the finish line. The remaining Northeast club, Buffalo, fell flat long ago. When discussing inconsistency, this weirdness in this division may be unrivaled.
In Montreal's case, the energy and confidence the Habs displayed until a few weeks ago seemed to vanish after they lost their most physical defenseman, Alexi Emelin, to a knee injury after he tried to check the Bruins' Milan Lucic on April 6 and bounced right off him. But Emelin's loss is not all that's ailing this club, which has had breakdowns in every aspect of its play.
• Toronto ended its seven year playoff drought, much to the delirium of Leafs Nation. The team improved its penalty kill (from 28th last season to third best this year), got sorely needed good goaltending as James Reimer came into his own, and Nazim Kadri -- who some had written off -- developed into an effective scorer. But as a whole, the Maple Leafs haven't looked particularly good of late. They get outshot by wide margins in most games and their defense corps is suspect.
• That the Senators are even still in the playoff chase -- they, too, need a win in their final two contests -- is rather astounding considering the horrific run of injuries to their top players. Defensemen Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen, goalie Craig Anderson, center Jason Spezza, and winger Milan Michalek all missed time. Spezza played in only five games and has yet to come back, but Karlsson miraculously returned to action against the Capitals on April 25 and logged 27:11 of ice time while contributing two assists in Ottawa's 2-1 win. It's a tribute to coach Paul MacLean and team leaders like Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips that the Sens didn't fold and kept pointing forward through their hard times.
• Many considered the Bruins to be an elite NHL club this season. They haven't played badly -- and will likely win their division -- but most expected them to challenge for the conference lead. While Tuukka Rask provided excellent goaltending after Tim Thomas walked away, not all B's played up to their potential, starting with Lucic and Nathan Horton. Good seasons from them probably would have made a difference.
• The club that Boston defeated for the Cup two seasons back, the Canucks, similarly never contended for the Western Conference lead, which some believed they would. Well, no one was going to catch Chicago anyway, but Vancouver missed injured Ryan Kesler for most of the season and that robbed them of secondary scoring. How much the Roberto Luongo-Cory Schneider goalie controversy actually mattered can only be guessed, but Canucks fans will point to the team's 3-1 victory over the Hawks this week in which it outplayed Chicago as proof that Vancouver has now got it right. Well, the Canucks did for one evening, at least.
• Last year, the Kings, began revving up their game before the playoffs, going 12-4-3 down the stretch and winning the Cup. They're not replicating that drive this season, but they've played well after an uncertain start and if they've learned anything from being the first eighth seed to win it all, it's that the regular season doesn't always mean too much.
• If there's a team that hopes to be this year's version of the Kings, it's the Capitals. A scorching run of 16-5-1 has clinched the Southeast Division and their turnaround coincided with the revivals of their top two forwards, Alex Ovechkin and Nicholas Backstrom, both of whom looked fairly discombobulated when they returned from their stint with the KHL's Moscow Dyanmo during the lockout. Washington went into Thursday's game against Ottawa having won 10 of 11, and if you watched the Caps play in January and early February, you wouldn't have predicted this.
• We can't forget the Islanders and Blue Jackets, about whom we wrote earlier this week, as providing some pleasant surprises for their fans as well. On the other side of the ledger, there' have been some huge disappointments for fans of the Devils, Hurricanes, Lightning, Panthers, Flames, Oilers, Avalanche and, especially, the Predators who will finish below .500 for the first time in 10 seasons and miss the playoffs for only the second time in nine. Predatos coach Barry Trotz believes the compressed schedule and lack of training camp is part of the reason why his club struggled this season while high skill clubs like the Blackhawks and Ducks started fast.
"Some of the really high-skilled teams got off to really good starts, Chicago being one of them," Trotz told Josh Cooper of The Tennessean. "I think lack of practice time really affected us. I think it affects us like teams that rely on structure and work ethic and stuff like that, us and Phoenix and a few other teams in that mold. It probably affected us a little bit more."
• Ah, yes, Phoenix. A disappointing year for the Coyotes, too, both on and off the ice. No one is certain where this franchise will be when the next regular season rolls around. Leaving Glendale would be another disappointment for their fans. But no one will be able to say they are surprised.