The lockout-shortened 48-game NHL season was supposed to be a wild and chaotic sprint to the finish line, and it has lived up to the promise.
There was the hurry-up training camp after a bitter four-month work stoppage. There was the Chicago Blackhawks’ start, a record 24 games in a row without a regulation loss. There was the Pittsburgh Penguins’ surge, which featured a 15-game winning streak in March and a seven-game streak in April. There was Sidney Crosby, apparently galloping his way to the NHL scoring title until a broken jaw sidelined him for the final month, and threw the scoring race wide open.
In the Eastern Conference, the three worst teams last year, the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs, all unexpectedly qualified for the playoffs. Over in the West, last year’s 13th-place team, the Anaheim Ducks, made it, too, while the 15th-ranked Columbus Blue Jackets – the absolute worst team a year ago – were in the playoff hunt as the regular season comes to an end this weekend.
Meanwhile, two of last year’s Stanley Cup semi-finalists, the New Jersey Devils and the Phoenix Coyotes, will be on the outside looking in, when the playoffs begin Tuesday.
It was a topsy-turvy year, when up was down, and about the only thing anybody could agree upon was how good the Penguins were, even before trading-deadline deals that brought in the likes of Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray. The Penguins were already ripping their way through the schedule, without their highly regarded reinforcements. How good could they be when all their injured parties – Crosby, James Neal and Paul Martin – returned?
But if the past teaches you anything, having the best team on paper at the start of the playoffs is not the same thing as celebrating a Stanley Cup championship two months later. The playoffs are a two-month marathon, and once in a while, a team can come out of nowhere and catch lightning in a bottle.
In the seven years between 2004 and 2011, that happened a couple of times to a couple of dark-horse Canadian contenders. In that span, four Canadian teams made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final: Calgary (2004), Edmonton (2006), Ottawa (2007) and Vancouver (2011). All except for the Senators pushed their series to the limit and ultimately fell in seven games. But with four teams qualifying this year out of seven, and two with home-ice advantage in the opening round, the possibilities of a deep playoff run have a lot of Canadian fans crossing their fingers and hoping this year could be their year.
As the Islanders did 20 years ago. In 1993, the Islanders were a young and unproved team and in the second round, came up against a juggernaut, the two-time defending champion Penguins, who had completed the best regular season in the Mario Lemieux era, running up 119 points.
The Penguins finished the year on a 17-0-1 roll and quickly eliminated the New Jersey Devils in five games. They were loaded with all-stars and future Hall of Famers that year – Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Joey Mullen, Rick Tocchet, Kevin Stevens, Larry Murphy, Ulf Samuelsson, Tom Barrasso on the ice; and behind the bench, the most successful coach in history, Scott Bowman.
John Davidson, then an analyst, now the president of the Blue Jackets, famously predicted that if the Penguins didn’t win, “there ought to be an investigation.” Nor was Davidson alone in his assessment. Pittsburgh really was that good – and the NHL playoffs, that year, felt more like a coronation than a competition.
But somewhere along the way to the parade route, the Islanders did what no one thought was possible and eliminated a Penguins team that finished 32 points ahead of them in the regular-season standing, one of the most unexpected upsets in NHL playoff history.
Moreover, with Pittsburgh out, a far more lightly regarded Montreal Canadiens team found a clear path to the final, and became Stanley Cup champions, the last Canadian team to win – 20 years ago now and counting.