The 2013 NHL season was about a season that almost wasn’t and then blossomed into one of the best in recent memory. Ratings records were set, goalies reigned supreme and the playoffs got nostalgic. Every round but the Conference Finals featured an original six matchup and the Conference Finals featured the last four Stanley Cup winners in a best of the best gauntlet to prove which of the latest champions was indeed the best.

To break this ridiculously long article down, in the first part I recap the season of the Stanley Cup Champions, then I go into the biggest surprises, disappointments and awards of the season (regular and post) and then I make up some miscellaneous stuff. I also can’t hide my frustrations and disappointment that the Anaheim Ducks traded Bobby Ryan. Not a happy day for me.

The 2013 Stanley Cup Champions

Chicago Blackhawks

Well despite the fact that the Chicago Blackhawks had the best record all season I didn’t think they would beat the Bruins. Honestly, the Bruins played better than the Blackhawks in 5 out of the 6 games. So the Bruins should have won the series in 5 games but of course that didn’t happen… nor could it. I was also surprised Patrick Kane won the Conn Smythe since there was a span of 7 games where he had only 2 assists. This felt like one of those rare years where someone on the losing team would win (Tuukka Rask or David Krejci) but that didn’t happen either. But it’s now written in the record books in stone so let’s recap their season!

Coming off a lockout season nobody really knew what to expect. For the Blackhawks there were a few new faces but all of the key components from the Stanley Cup team in 2010 remained. Except for in net. Antti Neimi’s ugly exit was well documented, as was their problems before with Cristobal Huet. Marty Turco came over but Corey Crawford ended up stealing the top spot from him and almost single-handedly lead the Blackhawks to an upset over the Vancouver Canucks. But my how soon people forget. After a so-so regular season and a poor performance against the Coyotes in the playoffs the following season many people had question marks about Crawford. And boy were they about to be proved wrong.

In the regular season the Blackhawks started out on a roll and a record point streak to start the season at 24 games. They only lost back to back games 3 times in the regular season. Their backup goalie, Ray Emery, ended the season 17-1 and started out 12-0. Their starting goalie, Crawford, was 19-5 and they combined to post the best team GAA and win the William Jennings Trophy. The Blackhawks had one of the deepest teams in the NHL with 9 players over 20 points and 17 players in double digits in scoring. The one blemish against the Blackhawks was their 0-4 record against the Anaheim Ducks. Two shootout losses and two regulation losses. The Ducks were the only team the Blackhawks did not beat in the Western Conference and a playoff matchup would have been very intriguing. The regular season games between the two were highly entertaining and you could feel the almost playoff intensity atmosphere.

The series against the Minnesota Wild in the 1st round was pretty boring. Two of the five games were close but none of them seemed in doubt, although the Wild did win the one overtime game. Their last game against the Wild was their biggest margin of victory and then they rolled in against the Detroit Red Wings, in the 2nd round, with a big win as well. The Blackhawks owned the Red Wings in the regular season as well and they figured to do the same here. But then the Blackhawks seemingly hit a wall. They had their first three game losing streak of the season, they produced 2 goals in three games and their top players disappeared. This wall would be their 2010 Nashville Predators moment in this playoffs. But showcasing their resiliency, the Blackhawks roared back for wins in Game 5 and Game 6 to set up the decisive and highly entertaining Game 7.

In Game 7, after having a 6 game point streak in the playoffs and then disappearing for the next 4 games, Patrick Sharp scored in the 2nd period to give the Blackhawks the lead. The game ratcheted up its intensity after that. But there weren’t any more goals until the 1:47 mark when Niklas Hjalmarsson blasted home the go ahead goal… or so we thought. Apparently Brandon Saad and Kyle Quincey were in a scuffle and even though the ref is supposed to let the play develop and only blow the whistle when a scoring importunity is not present, he blew the play dead anyway. The call was very controversial and almost everyone agreed the play should have been allowed to continue. Instead the Red Wings were able to tie the game with only 2 seconds left in the game. Despite all that the Blackhawks were not daunted and Brent Seabrook scored 3 minutes into overtime to send the Blackhawks into the conference finals.

The conference finals against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings was very close except for Game 2. Although the games were close it was disappointing it only went 5 games. The key to this series was Jonathon Quick being human. His worse game was Game 2 which also happened to be the 2nd of back to back games. Loosely translated Quick has played a lot the last two seasons. Bryan Bickell and Patrick Kane were huge in the series and this was probably Patrick Kane’s and the Blackhawks best series.

And then we moved on to a wonderful Stanley Cup Finals against the Bruins. This series couldn’t really be any closer. Three of the six games went into overtime and no team ever had more than a two goal lead. The first game was a true classic, a triple overtime thriller. The loser of these long overtime games, in this case the Bruins, usually has a hard time recovering from the loss although most of the time series don’t open with a triple overtime game. In this case the Bruins did have a hard time recovering as the Blackhawks steamrolled them in the 1st period in Game 2, But the Bruins bounced back to win in overtime and then take Game 3, shutting out the Blackhawks. At this point things looked bleak for the Blackhawks, their powerplay wasn’t working, they were being severely outplayed in the face-off circle and most of their goals were off of Bruins turnovers or weird difficulties. However in Game 4 the Blackhawks came out swinging with a 3-1 lead and both teams scored almost as many goals in one game as they did the previous three. And this game also went into overtime but even more important this was the turning point in the season. This was just as heartbreaking a loss for the Bruins as Game 1 was. Technically speaking the Bruins could have won all four games by now and the series would have been over but instead the Blackhawks had tied the series up. Game 5 was pretty much controlled by the Blackhawks but Game 6 was another classic in this series. The Bruins scored first and then took the lead again in the 3rd and it seemed like we would have a thrilling Game 7. But momentum had being going the Blackhawks way this whole series and especially the last few games and the Blackhawks scored when they pulled Crawford to tie the game. At this point the Bruins were shell-shocked and Coach Claude Julien should have used his timeout but he didn’t. Instead a mere 17 seconds later Dave Bolland and the Blackhawks seemingly waltzed in and easily netted their Stanley Cup winning goal.

In the beginning and the end the Blackhawks were the best. In the middle, especially the postseason, that could easily be debated. Against the Red Wings they were down 3 games to 1 and they looked like they would never win again. Instead it was the Red Wings who never won again. Against the Bruins down 2 games to 1 it looked they would never win again and I wrote them off, instead it was the Bruins who never won again. This can be attributed to the Blackhawks’ resiliency, perseverance, talent, dedication and coaching. All the attributes of a true champion.

Biggest Surprises/Best of the Year

Teams

Ottawa Senators – The Senators barely made the playoffs last year and somehow managed to place one spot higher despite the team getting worse. It seemed like everyone on the team regressed and they played almost the whole season without Jason Spezza. Only three players had double digits in goals and nobody on the team had at least 30 points. The only other team to have that dubious distinction was the Nashville Predators. The Senators only strength was Craig Anderson and the team’s ability to plug anyone in net and have them provide stellar goaltending as well. Anderson, Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop all had a SV% over .920.

Best Game 7

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

This was a no brainer. Probably one of the best playoff games ever, certainly when it came to the dramatics of it all. After being up in the series 3-1 and only playing bad in their one loss, the Bruins looked all but assured of going to the next round against a young inexperienced Maple Leafs team. I felt bad for Toronto too because it didn’t look like the Maple Leafs would be able to produce a win for the home crowd since they were probably going to lose in five games. But wouldn’t you know it they won Game 5 and Game 6 2-1 and force a game 7. Then they forged ahead to what was a surely an insurmountable 4-1 lead in the 3rd period. When the Maple Leafs scored the 4th goal I was going of shocked. It wouldn’t have surprised me if the Maple Leafs won but to beat the Bruins by that much at home seemed unlikely. I didn’t feel like the Bruins were out of it but they way they had been playing up to that point was pretty bad and it seemed unlikely they would mount a comeback. But it’s never over till it’s over in sports and the Bruins, as you know by now, notched one goal to get within breathing distance and then netted two more with the goalie pulled to force overtime. After the game went to overtime you just knew it as only a matter of time until the Bruins would win it. You can’t help but feel bad for the Maple Leafs another cursed season. But they are a young team and will bounce back. Sometimes you need to fail first before you can succeed. This is reminiscent of the Bruins being up 3-0 to the Flyers in their 2nd round series and 3-0 in Game 7 before losing the year before they won the Stanley Cup in 2011. Will history repeat itself?

Best Series

The Stanley Cup Finals are never included in this because they are generally the best anyway, plus I cover that in the beginning of the column.

Los Angeles Kings vs. St. Louis Blues

This series wasn’t for those that liked to see goals scored as only two of the six games featured more than 3 goals scored combined. This was pure in your face hockey. Tons of hits and pure top goaltending at its finest. Save after unbelievable save, hit after bone jarring hit. Every game was decided by only one goal. Game 1, Game 2 and Game 5 both featured last minute game winning or game tying goals. Jonathan Quick recovered from his early overtime gaffe in Game 1 to lead the Kings to four straight wins.

San Jose Sharks vs Los Angles Kings

There are many reasons to love this series. First it was an all California series, second four of the seven games were decided by one goal, 6 of 7 were decided by 2 goals or less, (the one that wasn’t was because of an empty net goal) and the home team won all of them. Add in sensational goaltending and you have an awesome series. Jonathon Quick was also sensational in this series as was his counterpart Antti Niemi.

Biggest Disappointments/Worst of the Year

Teams

Pittsburgh Penguins – This is mostly for their postseason run not their regular season. Not to be arrogant but I guess I’m the only one that saw this coming. This is basically the same exact team that twice lost in the 1st round and once in the 2nd round the previous 3 playoffs since they won the Stanley Cup. They didn’t add any new pieces of significance besides players they didn’t need, like Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow. Their playoff goaltending and defense were atrocious in those previous playoff series and last season against the Flyers they flamed out in the 1st round because of those things, again, in conjunction with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin not producing or keeping their composure. Also back in 2010 I wrote this after the Penguins lost to the Canadiens in the 2nd round “Marc-Andre Fleury was awful, the Penguins defense was awful, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had no points and the game wasn’t close.” Sound familiar? So this year they bring all of those things which were never addressed or fixed into Round 1. As the 1st seed the Penguins are lucky that they got to play the worst teams. The Islanders almost beat them and if they had a decent goalie they would have or if the Penguins continued to play Marc-Andre Fleury they also would have won. It’s funny to me how bad Fleury really was because this had being boiling over for some time but the Penguins chose to ignore it. Against the Senators the Penguins won all but one game but the game they lost they committed a major error that eventually lead to them losing, not something a true contender would do. But other than Game 4 and 5 you never really felt like the Penguins won any of those game. It’s only because they had more talent than the Senators that they won the series. Games 5 was the only game were the Penguins total dominated but there in lay the biggest problem. That game made the Penguins, and everyone else, believe their own hype. Here they were rocketing to greatness and cruising at full speed. But the freight train that was the Boston Bruins lay awaiting. Before the Penguins knew what hit them it was too late. Even in the games they actually showed up they still lost, although not by much. Blame goes to GM Ray Shero for not addressing any of the aforementioned issues. This is why him “winning” the GM of the year award is ludicrous. Why because he added the best players available? So what. It doesn’t do you any good if they don’t fill a position of need and they don’t have chemistry, or time to develop it, with your current players. The saddest part is this isn’t new revelation. They haven’t played well in the postseason since they won the Stanley Cup. When you have two of the top 10 best players in the world you need to do a better job. Speaking of those so called best players in the world, it is now becoming a habit for them to disappear when they are needed most. Truly great players rise to overcome any challenge or obstacle in their way. Right now the legacy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are forging is not something for them to be very proud of.

Worst Game 7

New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals – I guess it’s becoming a common theme for the Capitals to lose these kind of games no matter who is coaching them or how hot they are going into the playoffs. If you look up “no effort” in the dictionary you will see a picture of these Capitals. I’ll be honest I didn’t really watch this game because I was watching the far superior Bruins vs Maple Leafs game. By the time that game ended it was already 4-0, I believe. Truly pathetic to produce that kind of effort at home in a Game 7. Alex Ovechkin had a whopping one shot on goal. I actually expected more out of them this year because the way they rolled into the playoffs and Braden Holtby’s playoff success last year. I was wrong, same old disappointing Capitals.

Worst Series

Montreal Canadiens vs Ottawa Senators – There’s always a big upset, or a few, in the playoffs. I had a feeling this would be one of them but I just didn’t see where the offense would come from on the Senators. Turns out I should have stayed with my gut. This series featured two 6-1 blowouts, which weren’t even really that close, by the Senators. It did feature one nice overtime game though. Carey Price played well in the series but when he goes down and you look even more lost, then you really have some problems. The Canadiens looked like they didn’t deserve the number 2 seed and they really didn’t. But to crash and burn against a 7th seeded team that probably shouldn’t even have made the playoffs is a new low. I was really hoping for more from the battle of Quebec.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Boston Bruins – Whenever you get to the Conference Finals you would hope you would get a decent series but lately that just hasn’t been the case. This series would have to rank up their with one of the worst ever. Now don’t get me wrong, Game 3 was probably one of the best games of this playoffs. But Game 2 was probably one of the worst games of the whole playoffs and with a combined score of 9-1 after two games, you couldn’t exactly get pumped for the other games. By the time the Penguins came to play, it was already over.

Miscellaneous

It Can Only Happen in Hockey

Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens trade losing teeth – In each of the first three games somebody lost some teeth. In Game 1 Craig Anderson lost them, Carey Price lost them in Game 2 and Jean-Gabriel Pageau lost them in Game 3.

Way to Ruin Your Team Award

Philadelphia Flyers – Here’s a team that has gone slowly backwards since their Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2012. But more importantly they shedding quality players left to right. The Flyers got rid of Jeff Carter and Michael Richards only to see them win a Stanley Cup later that season. They also signed unproven in the postseason goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to a big money contract, he has failed to live up to it and now the Flyers have bought out his contract. Worse is that The Flyers had current Vezina winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on their team and gave up on him. Bobrovsky had a fairly good rookie season despite not speaking English at all, though he did have a subpar postseason. In his second season he regressed more but, like a quarterback in football, I believe a goalie’s second season is always his hardest. I don’t think the Flyers had enough data to evaluate his potential. Judging by how he did with the Blue Jackets, they were wrong. The Flyers also traded for Chris Pronger in 2009 who, while one of the best defenseman ever, was on the downside of his career and even though there’s no way they would have known he would get injured, he has basically played his last game. The Flyers gave up Joffrey Lupul, a top 6 forward with Toronto, Luca Sbisa, a budding defensman with the Ducks, and, among their few picks they gave up, one pick that turned into rising star Emerson Etem who is also with the Ducks. After the Richards and Carter trades GM Paul Holmgren stated the Flyers “Were certainly different”. Yes you are, you are also certainly a lot worse. This is a surefire blueprint of how to not build your team.

Teams on the Rise

New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs – A couple of years ago I wrote that The Los Angeles Kings were a team on the rise and two years later they won it all. Will that happen again with one of these teams? Both of these tams have been bad for so long it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t eventually be good at some point with all those high draft picks they’ve amassed over the years. But as previous Islanders’ general managers have shown high draft picks don’t always equate to a winning team because, shockingly, it matters who you pick and how long you keep them.

For the Islanders John Tavares is obviously their best pick but Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey, Travis Hamonic and Kyle Okposo have all been recent picks that have contributed. Thrown some good pickups like Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner and Lubomir Visnovsky. They’ve found good chemistry and they got their first taste of playoff experience, almost bouncing the Penguins in the 1st round, to build upon. The only thing they are lacking is a goalie. The Islanders seem to be enamored with Evgeni Nabokov, though nobody knows why. He proved yet again he can’t be counted on in the playoffs and his best days are behind him at this point in his career. The Islanders need to look towards the future and get a goalie that will blossom with Tavares.

The Maple Leafs road back to prominence was just as hard as the Islanders. Because of the tough Toronto market former GM Brian Burke said you didn’t have enough time to build for the draft. I’m not going to go into dissecting that logic but suffice it to say I don’t agree with that. The Phil Kessel trade has finally paid off for the Leafs. Nazem Kadri (see below), Nikolai Kulemin and James Reimer have been the best of the players drafted so far. Key acquistions include Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, Dion Phaneuf, Clarke MacArthur and Undrafted Tyler Bozak. Reimer has been gradually been getting better and his growth is key to how far the Leafs will go. The Leafs now have a deep team and even though the 1st round game 7 loss was heartbreaking, there is a lot they can take away from it that will happen them in future series. Look for both teams to make the playoffs again next season and go further.

Breakout of the Year

Nazem Kadri – After being drafted with the 7th overall pick in 2009, Kadri failed to become a top six forward and was sent back to the OHL. Despite not receiving much confidence from then Coach Ron Wilson and General Manager Brian Burke prior to the 2010-11 season, Kadri still played in 29 games for the Maple Leafs that season. He found only moderate success in the NHL but he was named to the AHL All-Star team that season. That off-season he trained with former NHLer Gary Roberts to build muscle mass and play more explosively. His hard worked paid off and he finally made the Maple Leafs starting roster. He averaged just under a point per game (48 games, 44 points) in the lockout shortened season and had a 7 and 5 game scoring streak in the middle of the season. In the playoffs he didn’t get going until the final two games against Boston but big things are expected from Kadri. At least this season he doesn’t have to worry about making the roster.

Goalie of the Year

Craig Anderson – Anderson wasn’t even nominated for the Vezina Trophy, because he was injured for a big chunk of the season, but I don’t really care because he was still the best goalie of the year regardless of how many games he played in. It’s not his fault he was injured. He led the league in the SV% and GAA and that should count for something. The Vezina Trophy voting seems to have favored those that played the most games, as all nominees played at least 38 games. Corey Schneider, Tuukka Rask, Corey Crawford and Anderson all had better SV% and more shutouts than Lundqvist but played fewer games. I know it’s not all about numbers but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Crawford and Rask were in the Finals after the season they had. Anderson just keeps rebounding back from injuries, trades and poor seasons to prove critics wrong over and over again. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next season.

Player of the Year

Sidney Crosby – Sidney Crosby has endured a lot over the past few seasons but he’s been as resilient as ever. Crosby’s 2013 scoring per game (1.55) was just under his scoring per game of the 2010-11 season (1.6) but both seasons ended the same, cut short due to injury. Still he finished just 4 points shy of winning the Art Ross Trophy despite playing 12 less games. He also scored at least one point in every game he played except 8 of them. Incidentally those two seasons were his 1st and 2nd best scoring paces of his career. It would be nice to see a full season (non-lockout and uninjured) of Crosby in his prime. Here’s hoping that will be next season.

Most Value Player to his Team

Alex Ovechkin – Ovechkin wins this (my Hart Trophy) for several reasons. One because of his perseverance. He started out with a new head coach and the loss of Alexander Semin. The biggest thing he had to overcome, though, was switching from left wing to right wing. You might not think it’s a big deal but it is. Initially Ovechkin bristled at the idea but then he eventually relented somewhat and then gradually made the switch. But it ended up paying off big for him. Ovechkin had points in 18 of the last 21 regular season games down the stretch and more importantly the Capitals one those games. The Capitals were 4-11-1 when Ovechkin didn’t register a point and 23-7-2 when he did register a point. That, to me, is the definition of a player who is valuable to his team.

Unfortunately in the playoffs, when their teams needed them the most, both Crosby and Ovechkin failed to deliver anything resembling their regular season form. In their last four games each neither produced a point. Worse only one of those eight games did either produce a positive +/- and that was Crosby with a 1. There’s always next year though.

I’m not sure if I will do a recap video this season, it depends on a few things. If I do it, look for it in August. It’s probably not going to happen though because of time constraints.

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