The lockout ends
It's amazing to think that such a spectacular season began with a four-month lockout that threatened to derail NHL hockey as we knew it. The drama of the lockout itself was exhausting and neverending for those that covered it day-to-day and for fans it was a maddening and frustrating example of business getting in the way of our love of sports. The animosity and vitriol that came forward during negotiations made it feel at times this was a relationship that could never be mended and that another full season would once again be lost to greed and an inability to compromise.
Unexpectedly, however, a federal negotiator took it upon himself to ensure an agreement was made and a marathon session early in January saved the season. Suddenly the doom and gloom disappeared, the cloud lifted over the league and within two weeks hockey was being played again. It was a whirlwind of action that awoke a dormant fanbase that, while incredibly bitter, once again proved the NHL correct in that the sport is just too good for people to walk away from.
The return of Sid vs. Ovi
One of the biggest factors for the NHL resurgence following the 2004-05 lockout was the spectacular play of superstars Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Both young forwards quickly became the two most exciting players to watch in hockey and the rivalry that formed between the Penguins and Capitals was not only immensely entertaining, it was an absolute boon for the national publicity of the league.
The last few seasons, however, both players have fallen by the wayside a bit. Crosby has had several concussion issues and will likely deal with them the rest of his career, while Ovechkin was frustrated by diminishing point totals, high expectations and the biases of a North American hockey media that seemed to want nothing but to see him fail.
In 2013, both players once again stepped right back into the spotlight and once again the debate raged over who was better. Ovechkin would eventually be voted the NHL's MVP and winner of the Hart Trophy, but would likely have lost to Crosby had injuries not gotten in the way. A postseason showdown never occurred, but the NHL was once again treated to a highlight show all season long between the two most exciting players in the world.
The sprint of a season
With the lockout over, attention then turned to a compacted 48 game schedule that would push the playoffs all the way into the final week of June. Those that were around in 1994 recalled just how intense that shortened season was and how much importance was placed on each game. While the first few weeks of the 2013 season featured some sloppy hockey around the league, the marathon of 48 games in around 100 days or so was truly something to behold.
It was a season that tested the conditioning and health of teams around the league and in the end, only the strong could survive. The best coaches and the best prepared teams found their way into the playoffs in a season that left little room for mistakes, and as predicted the teams with the most continuity from last season to this one were the most consistently successful.
Fans certainly don't want a short season every year, but the lockout-shortened season seemed to prove that perhaps a more compacted schedule is needed in the NHL. Each game had more weight to it, the excitement level was higher across the board and ratings and attendance were leagues higher than anyone could have anticipated. We'll look forward to the easier pace of this next season, but it's tough to deny just how exciting this marathon finish was.
Postseason races more intense than usual
One thing the short season allowed for was another intense race for the playoffs, this time including both the East and the West. The NHL's flawed points system once again rewarded too many teams for losing efforts yet the battle for the playoffs kept the final weeks of the season at a level of excitement -- across the board -- we haven't seen in quite some time. Many of the races came down to the final games of the year and while the race is usually tight in the West, this season feature more teams fighting for the postseason than we've certainly seen in recent years.
A product of the compressed schedule, for sure, but also a sign of the parity in the NHL where not much separates the large group of teams that make up the middle of the pack in each conference. It's fitting, perhaps, that these postseason races were the swan song for the current divisional and playoff format -- because changes are coming.
NHL realignment approved
While the NHL lockout may not have changed as much about the league and the CBA as many would have thought, in order to justify a work stoppage for three months, bigger changes came from a separate agreement made after the season had actually started. After years of debate and discussion, the NHL is finally undergoing some drastic realignment not just in the geographic breakdown of the divisions but a complete revamping of the postseason format.
Two divisions per conference, with the Blue Jackets and Red Wings moving to the East and teams like the Dallas Stars finally in a division that is more suitable to their geographic location. This is going to be a major change moving forward, especially considering that there is now a "wild card" of sorts in the playoff race in each conference, while there exists an uneven number of teams from one conference to the next. This new division-heavy format was instrumental in forming many of the hardcore rivalries that currently exist, but it's unknown the effect a similar format will have a much-expanded league.
Jarome Iginla, Jaromir Jagr and Brenden Morrow come up short
Leading up to the trade deadline there was much speculation about three veteran forwards and where they might end up in advance of the postseason. Jarome Iginla had been rumored to be on the trading block for most of the season considering the struggles of the Calgary Flames, and Brenden Morrow's name had been rumored for the better part of the past two seasons.
With the Flames and Dallas Stars falling out of postseason contention, their respective teams made the decision to move them along to a better situation ahead of their pending UFA status. All three players essentially had the choice of their destination, with the Jarome Iginla decision creating the most drama when the Boston Bruins felt they had a trade in place before the veteran turned to Pittsburgh instead. Jagr appeared to be ready to stay in Dallas, postseason or not, yet a late change of mind by the Stars front office quickly sent him along to Boston in the wake of Iginla's decision.
All three came close to the Stanley Cup yet fell short, and none of the three had nearly the impact in the postseason it was expected of them when the trades were made. Unsurprisingly, Jagr had the biggest positive impact on his team and was just two wins from the Cup, yet still struggling to put the points on the board when the Bruins needed it the most.
The failure of the Penguins in the Conference Finals, especially after loading up the way they did prior to the trade deadline, was another reminder of how talent alone cannot build a champion.
While the NHL was once again dominated by the powerhouse franchises of the past few years, other teams began to step out of the darkness and push forward into the postseason. The New York Islanders, Minnesota Wild, Columbus Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs all made surprising pushing for the playoffs, with the Blue Jackets coming just short after an incredible run the second half of the season.
The Maple Leafs finally getting back to the postseason was perhaps the biggest story of the year in this regard, with all of the drama surrounding the surprising regular season and then the first-round collapse against the Bruins. We're seeing teams that have struggled, start to find success thanks to shrewd drafting and targeting free agent signings, the method for success that seems to be what will truly work in today's NHL. That teams like the Blue Jackets are finally fighting close to the playoffs is certainly a great sign for the league.
The Penguins disappoint
It was supposed to be the Conference Finals to rule them all. The winners of the past four Stanley Cups were all that remained standing in the NHL and it was going to be a battle between the four teams most considered to have truly have been the best over the course of the season and the playoffs. While we expected an epic battle in both series, instead we were treated to a beatdown and domination that no one could have expected.
The struggles of the Penguins against the Bruins was something to truly behold, a team that was outcoached and outplayed while clearly being the most talented team on the ice. While Crosby and Malkin certainly struggled in the series, once again we were witness to just how important goaltending is in the postseason and that even the most talented teams need to be rock solid in net. Marc-Andre Fleury was barely good enough in 2009 and in 2013 he was absolutely abysmal, and even Tomas Vokoun wasn't good enough to save the sinking ship.
Chicago Blackhawks do it right
The season concluded with perhaps one of the more epic Stanley Cup Final series we've seen in quite some time. It was a battle between two battered and bruised teams, two goaltenders at the very top of their game and two coaches attempting to do everything possible to give their team the best chance to win. In 17 seconds the series turned on a dime and the Blackhawks emerged victorious -- a fitting end for a team that dominated the NHL from the first drop of the puck back in January.
After winning the Cup in 2010, the Blackhawks have once again lifted the Cup but with a much different team on the ice. Drastic changes were forced upon the franchise in the summer of 2010 and it was surmised that Chicago would never be as good again. While the names might not be as big this time around, this was a Blackhawks team that was miles better and more cohesive than the 2010 team and a shining example of what every NHL franchise should aspire to become.
This was a team that won thanks to stellar defense and goaltending and incredible puck possession skills, finishing dead last in the league in hits during the season and riding the leadership of one of the best all-around players in the game. The Blackhawks have now become a powerhouse in the NHL after nearly being completely down and out less than a decade ago, and it was one heck of job to watch their journey to become champions once more.