By Stu Hackel
A big dark storm cloud lingers over any celebration of hockey in 2012. It’s the NHL lockout and it has been showering grief on the game and its fans for over three months. Now, it also makes my job here a bit easier compared to my colleagues who are covering other sports because so little has happened between June and December that the range of choices for my favorite stories of the year has been sliced dramatically. Still, I’d rather be burdened by having to choose from a full plate.
The Return of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl – The worst news of 2011 — the Yaroslavl plane crash that killed 37 players, coaches and support staff members (not to mention the flight crew) and destroyed one of Russian hockey’s most beloved franchises — became one of the best stories of this year. After taking a season off to plot their return and getting volunteers from all over the hockey map to rebuild the organization, Lokomotiv returned this fall to the cheers of its own fans, those of opposing KHL teams, and the entire hockey world.
Another former NHLer, Tom Rowe, took the place of the head coach who perished on Sept. 7, 2011 — Brad McCrimmon — and at this writing Rowe has Loko atop the Tarasov Division, just in front of another Russian power, CSKA (the Central Red Army team). Loko is also the top defensive team in the league. “It has been traumatic some days and very emotional some days, but everybody deals with it in their own way,” Rowe told The New York Times last month. “The people within the organization have been incredibly positive and very supportive. I feel bad for them because they were very good friends with the guys on that plane. It was such a tremendous tragedy last year, and we’ve had a lot of things going our direction this year. I really do believe somebody is looking out over us from up above.”
A Cup For The Kings – Marcel Dionne and Rogie Vachon couldn’t do it. Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall’s phantom millions couldn’t do it. But finally — in their 45th season — the Los Angeles Kings hit on the right combination of talent, coaching, depth and desire to bring their perpetually agonized fans the Stanley Cup. Led by the Gumby-like goaltending of Jonathan Quick, the excellence of Anze Kopitar, the resurgence of Drew Doughty and the persistence of captain Dustin Brown, the Kings had to overcome their own underachievement just to squeak into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the West. But they did, thanks in large part to the December hiring of coach Darryl Sutter, who substituted Terry Murray’s passive approach for a more typically Sutter aggressive one, which worked wonders for a team as big and physical as L.A.
Magical things happen to any team that wins a championship — like often lethargic winger Dustin Penner playing with verve — and I confess to not fully believing in the Kings’ magic even as they were plowing through their first three rounds of the postseason, losing only two of 14 games prior to the Cup final. They had crushed the Canucks, Blues and Coyotes, but those teams were crippled by injury and their own limitations. But if those foes hadn’t provided stern tests, the Kings OT’ed the Devils by identical 2-1 scores in the first two games of the final on the road…
…came home to take Game 3, then had to fight off New Jersey to win in six. Hollywood was Hockeywood at last.
A Round To Remember – The conference quarterfinals of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs combined all that is good with the NHL and all that is bad, resulting in perhaps the most competitive opening round ever. Of the 48 games played, 32 were one-goal decisions, that’s 67 percent, a better pace than the record of 63 set in 2007. Sixteen first-round games went to overtime, breaking the record of 15 in 2001. Teams were either tied or separated by one goal for an astonishing 82.8 percent of the total playing time. We also witnessed a shift in the league’s balance of power, with the Cup champion Bruins dethroned and marquee teams like the Red Wings, Canucks, Sharks, Penguins and Blackhawks all eliminated early. Five of the six games between Chicago and Phoenix went to overtime, equaling the mark for most OTs in one series. Each of the seven games between Boston and Washington was decided by a single goal — a first. The wild Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series saw 62 goals scored in seven games, nearly nine per game in a league where under six was the regular season average.
All of that excitement rivaled the first round’s brutality in the headlines as the league lurched out of control, starting with on the first night with Nashville’s Shea Weber rabbit punching Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg, putting a headlock worthy of the Iron Sheik on him and ramming the Red Wing’s helmet into the glass as the game ended.
NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan only deemed that deed worth a $2,500 fine, sending a tolerant message to all. For the next week, the league lurched out of control — nowhere more so than the Flyers-Penguins match-up, which degenerated into a street fight — forcing Shanahan to frantically play catch-up and hand out nine suspensions in the first round. “It surprises me,” former Islanders coach Al Arbour, who played and coached during the game’s roughest era since the 1930s. “Never mind what it was in our day. It’s getting carried away. They’re getting carried away with everything. They’re reckless in what they’re doing right now….Yes, it does bother me. It bothers me a lot.”
The violence culminated with the Coyotes’ Raffi Torres delivering a blindside hit to Marian Hossa, which concussed the Chicago star so severely that he was only deemed healthy enough to play by mid-December. That earned Torres a massive 25-game suspension (third longest in history, subsequently reduced to 21 games) that he’ll finish serving when the next season starts. The ban sent the kind of message the NHL should have sent when Weber assaulted Zetterberg.
The Jets Take Off – No, the Winnipeg Jets didn’t make the playoffs; they finished eight points south of the cutoff. But it almost didn’t matter to their fans, who bathed in the euphoria of the NHL returning to the ‘Peg after the original Jets flew to Phoenix in 1996. That mere fact was a massive victory for the city, the region, and for hockey. A season-long love affair filled the noisy MTS Centre, the NHL’s smallest arena with the second highest average ticket price, for every game and pushed the Jets to an impressive 23-13-5 home record (compared to their dismal 14-22-5 road mark).
Despite outstanding goaltending from Ondrej Pavelec, who was easily the team’s MVP…
…the Jets were a flawed outfit, largely comprised of the Atlanta Trashers roster that missed the postseason by 13 points the season before. Their defense corps was ragged, their young forwards short on consistency. Still, they had some impressive stretches in Year One, pleasing almost every hockey fan in North America and they gave knowledgeable and patient Winnipeggers some hope for the future. The Jets had to be the NHL’s feel-good story of 2012 (carrying over from the second half of 2011).
Hitchcock’s Rebirth with the Blues – Ken Hitchcock seemed like a forgotten man. When last season began, it was the first time since 1973 that he wasn’t part of a team. A former Stanley Cup-winner in Dallas and the only bench boss to ever lead the Columbus Blue Jackets to a playoff appearance (2009), he wasn’t even allowed to finish the next season before being fired. The phone didn’t ring for a long time and some believed the 59-year-old — who had become only the 16th man in league history to coach 1,000 games and the 13th to record 500 victories — was done. He even started to think it himself.
But when the Blues got off to a 6-7-0 start, Blues team president John Davidson made the call in November of 2011 and Hitchcock, the perfect fit, transformed St. Louis into a team that nearly won the Western Conference, going 43-15-11 the rest of the way. He changed its style of play, instilled confidence where little existed before and made good on the promise that many of the young, talented Blues had never realized.
Hitchcock also had transformed himself, taking time to understand this generation of NHLers, slimming down from his previous portly dimensions with a healthy lifestyle, and modifying the demanding ways that had never endeared him to his players, especially coming from someone who not only had never played professionally, but never played the game at an advanced level at any age. After he won the Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year, Hitchcock confessed that he had just wanted to work for a team once again, in almost any capacity. “I didn’t care what I did. I didn’t want to do the ice, but anything else, I just wanted to be connected again.”
The Rise of Erik Karlsson – While few outside of Ottawa appreciated just how good Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson was when last season began, he was starting to run away in the race as the NHL’s top scoring blueliner by the time 2012 rolled around, and had gotten far more attention. Still, in February, NBC studio analyst Mike Milbury told viewers that Karlsson could win both the Norris Trophy as best defenseman and the Calder Trophy as best rookie, apparently unaware that the 21-year old was now in his third NHL season.
A product of Sweden’s Frulunda Hockey Club — which has produced 57 NHL draft choices, second most among European teams — Karlsson began piling up points in the first weeks of the season and just kept adding on as the Sens rode his dynamic puck-moving and power play quarterbacking into the playoffs.
Everyone in the game marveled at his fluid, swift skating, which drew comparisons to Paul Coffey, who is still considered among the best of all time. Like Coffey, Karlsson’s offensive dimension is more highly developed than his defending, and when voters were considering who to select for Norris, that deficiency played a role in the discussion. Even though Coffey in his prime with the Oilers smashed records for scoring by a defenseman, he was denied the Norris early on in favor of those with more all-around expertise. Some believed that Nashville’s Shea Weber, probably the game’s most complete defenseman, would get the hardware.
This time, however, the voters recognized the impact that Karlsson’s breakout year had on his team and the game. He tied for 10th in scoring among all players, quite a feat for a blueliner in this era, and his 78 points signified that he was in on nearly one-third of all the Senators’ goals last season. Stats aside, however, it’s a joy to watch him play.
Battle on the Hudson – One of hockey’s top rivalries returned to full boil this year as both the Rangers and Devils iced strong clubs in the Atlantic Division. With fiery John Tortorella behind the bench, the Broadway Blueshirts, led by Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Henrik Lundqvist, continued their steady ascent to become one of the league’s powers. New Devils coach Peter DeBoer got his club to rebound from a rare non-playoff season and top the 100-point mark for the seventh time in the past nine years (they had 99 in one of the other two), and the Devils were sparked by captain Zach Parise and a more dynamic offense than previous New Jersey clubs.
Tempers flared between the teams throughout the regular season, the signature event being a March game in Manhattan in which fights broke out at the drop of the opening faceoff, causing the coaches to exchange angry charges and reviving the debate on the spectacle of staged fighting in hockey. The teams then collided in the Eastern Conference Final and played a nasty six-game affair — a sucker punch here, a little spear there, here a check, there a check, everywhere a check check — in which the coaches jawed at each other again. Lundqvist did all he could…
…but after already playing a pair of seven-game series, the Rangers were running on empty. While New York had trouble sustaining offensive pressure, Devils goaltending great Marty Brodeur was acting as a third defenseman to clear Ranger shoot-ins and recapturing some of his old playoff glory while helping the Devs to advance.
The old antagonisms between the fans emerged as well, especially since the Ranger began to augment their impressive group of home-grown talent with high-priced free agent Brad Richards. That continued in the offseason as New York added Rick Nash via trade while the Devils lost Parise on the open market. When the league returns, this clash of cross-river neighbors could grow even hotter.
Two Record Streaks – No NHL team over the last 20 years has been more successful than the Red Wings and even through they were transitioning to a new group of cornerstone players (and will continue to without Nick Lidstrom), Detroit managed another major achievement in 2012 by wrapping up a league-record 23-game home winning streak that finally came to a halt in February. A strong showing at Joe Louis Arena became the team’s strength and kept it high in the standings much of the season, but it was under .500 on the road, which is unusual for the Wings. Still, their fans in Hockeytown and elsewhere celebrated the achievement.
Mike Babcock’s team didn’t establish the new mark without some controversy, however, and debates about the dreaded asterisk. Since 2005, games tied at the end of overtime have been settled by the shootout. Three of the Wings’ 23 wins came via this postgame skills competition, which wasn’t the rule when the Bruins won 22 straight at home in 1929-30 and ’30-31, nor when the Flyers won 20 straight at home in 1975-76. Had there been no shootout, Detroit’s streak would have only reached 12, their win over Phoenix on Jan. 12 instead ending as a 2-2 tie. Foes of the shootout were dismayed, but the league ruled in favor of modernity and the streak’s validity.
Well, live by the gimmick and die by the gimmick: The new streak ended on Feb. 23 when the Wings surrendered a game-tying goal to Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin with 16 seconds left in regulation and then fell in the shootout after a scoreless OT.
The Wings have long set the standard for fast, skilled, smart hockey and while not everyone loves them, they remain hard to hate. As Iain MacIntyre wrote in The Vancouver Sun: “The franchise’s entire existence since the chainsaw wars with the Colorado Avalanche in late 1990s has been one long, syrupy Hallmark moment.”
As impressive as Detroit’s streak was, it meant nothing come playoff time as the Wings fell in five first-round games to Nashville, losing both games at the Joe. But down in the American Hockey League, the Norfolk Admirals — the top farm club of the Tampa Bay Lightning — rattled off an even more impressive run. Beginning Feb. 10, coach Jon Cooper’s club went undefeated both at home and on the road for 18 consecutive games, breaking the previous pro hockey mark set by the IHL’s Peoria Rivermen in 1991 and — amazingly — continued winning from there…
…taking their remaining 10 games of the regular season: a stretch of 28 wins. At one point, they won 20 straight contests in regulation.
When the playoffs began, the Admirals won their opener against Manchester to make it 29, but dropped Game 2 of the series to end the streak. Cooper’s club went on to capture the Calder Cup championship, losing only twice more in the second round against Connecticut before sweeping St. John’s and Toronto. Their aggregate record From Feb. 10 to Jun. 9 was 43-3.
A Hat Trick Plus One – It was a miserable season for the Montreal Canadiens, one in which all sorts of things went wrong: players traded during games, coaches fired on game days, and a poor non-playoff performance on the ice, which is inexcusable for fans of the sport’s most storied franchise. But for at least one night in January, the magic returned to the Bell Centre when young third-line center Lars Eller brought the partisans out of their seats with a feat worthy of a Rocket Richard or Guy Lafleur: a four-goal night in the Habs’ 7-3 win over the Jets.
Other than perhaps in his native Denmark, Eller is hardly famous outside of Montreal, but that might be because he’s only in his second full NHL season. Until last night, his biggest claim to fame was being traded by the St. Louis Blues for Habs playoff hero Jaroslav Halak in the summer of 2009, which at the time seemed unthinkable. “Lars who?” was the general and angry reaction.
But Eller, only 22, has always been regarded as an outstanding skater with excellent defensive instincts, very good puck skills, and a sharp mind for the game. He regularly matches up against the opposition’s top line. He could well be on his way to developing into one of the best young two-way forwards in the NHL, but he hasn’t always displayed a natural scorer’s touch. He did on this night, being in the right place at the right time on three occasions for the tour de chapeau, then tallying on a penalty shot midway through the third period which included a spin-o-rama at the top of the crease that fooled Jets goalie Chris Mason to the delight of the near-hysterical crowd.
The fans kept cheering Eller during the three stars selection, during which those selected as the game’s top players take a curtain call and toss a puck in the crowd.
Eller threw out four pucks while receiving a prolonged standing ovation, which he returned almost bashfully while skating around amidst the tribute. For one night, at least, things were back to normal in Montreal.
Skating Against Sandy – In some ways, it was completely usual: NHL stars giving of themselves in a charitable effort to support people in need. But the specifics were highly unusual: These were locked-out players, few of whom had played any sort of real game in a packed arena for months. They had come together in Atlantic City, of all places, in front of a sold out Boardwalk Hall to put on a high-skill, high scoring exhibition quite reminiscent of an NHL All-Star Game in order to raise funds for three charities that are providing relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy.
After months of nothing but bad news and no games, and nothing to cheer about, 10,792 fans — many of whom had traveled from Philadelphia, New York and northern New Jersey — filled the huge barrel-roofed building and finally got to see some hockey heroes skate again, to welcome them and boo them like old, long absent friends and foes.
They called the game Operation Hat Trick, and all the proceeds — over $600,000 — wen to the American Red Cross, the Empire Relief Fund, and New Jersey Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund. As noble a gesture as it was, it was equally stunning during this elongated offseason to get a glimpse of Steven Stamkos slithering through defenses, Daniel Alfredsson making tape-to-tape passes through traffic, Martin Brodeur lofting the puck halfway down the ice, P.K. Subban dropping his shoulder and carrying the puck one-handed deep into the opponent’s zone, Simon Gagne breaking free from coverage, linemates Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry reading and reacting to each other’s moves, James Neal threatening to score every time he had the puck, and Kimmo Timonen making a perfect outlet pass.
The undisputed star of the evening was Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who had flown in from Sweden to make one eye-popping save after another. Often left defenseless, as is the tendency in no-hitter All-Star gatherings, he stopped 56 of 64 shots and looked ready to carry the Rangers deep into an NHL season that may never take place. “You’d think he’d have had a little rust in him,” Flyer Scott Hartnell said afterward.”He was in playoff shape.”
The fans reacted not only to the play, but to the circumstances, regularly chanting “We Want Hockey!” and “Bettman Sucks!”
The players — pulled together for the game by Hartnell, former Flyer Todd Fedoruk, and the Rangers’ Brad Richards — refrained from commenting much on the stalled CBA negotiations. They preferred talk about helping the storm victims, how much they missed the fans and playing competitive games.
The feeling was mutual as the fans ended the evening with a long, loud standing ovation that started in the game’s final minute and continued through handshakes and photos of the teams on the ice. One last time, they chanted, “We Want Hockey” and Hartnell later remarked, “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I got a little choked up when you had 11,000 people cheering they want hockey back.”
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