The bests and worsts of the 2013-14 NHL regular season
Every NHL season has moments and events that stand out for better or worse. Here are 20 notables from the 2013-14 campaign as it draws to a close:
1. COOLEST (AND COLDEST) IDEA
There's always a risk of having too much of a good thing, but nobody from the players to the fans to the owners seems to think we have reached that point with outdoor hockey, even with an all-time high six NHL games in the elements this season. The league earned some nice additional revenue to offset its losses from last season's lockout, and with many players describing the al fresco experience as a career highlight and no shortage of teams wanting in -- or is out? -- the NHL is sure to keep at it, although likely not quite as frequently as it did this winter.
2. BEST (AND WORST) IDEA
The NHL has had some head-scratching alignments and perplexing names in its history -- e.g. lumping Philadelphia, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Oakland in an all expansion team "West Division" in 1967-68; the traditional but vexing (to outsiders) Clarence Campbell and Prince of Wales Conferences -- but the league's new configuration for 2013-14 was a blessing and a curse. Realignment made travel easier for the Detroit Red Wings and Winnipeg Jets by having them switch conferences, but the new divisions are lopsided (eight teams in each of the East's Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions; seven apiece in the West's Central and Pacific), the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning now look as out of place in the Atlantic as the Jets did in the old Southeast, the division names were not all well received, and as one SI.com reader noted while viewing the league's complicated new playoff system, "Man, I want some of what those guys were smoking when they came up with this format..."
3. GOAL THAT NEEDED THE MOST MUSTARD
Welcome to the NHL, Tomas Hertl. You are a highlight film unto yourself. Now watch your back. San Jose's 19-year-old Czech center established himself as an early front-runner for the Calder Trophy on Oct. 8 when he racked up four goals against the New York Rangers, including a between-the-legs capper that made him the first NHL rookie to score four in a game since 1988. He also drew criticism from some in the hockey world who felt the fun-loving kid was showing up the opposition in a game that was out of reach by busting out a move that would have been more appropriate in an All-Star game. The heat he took inspired teammate Joe Thornton to, um, rise to Hertl's defense in a most off-colorful way. Unfortunately, while leading all rookies with 15 goals, Hertl went down with a knee injury on Dec. 19 and did not play again during the regular season.
4. BEST GOAL AFTER UNDRESSING THE DEFENSE
On Jan. 14, Detroit’s Tomas Tatar not only scored a superb goal, he made a pair of Dallas Stars look like Lone Star State Keystone Cops in the process. Tatar collected the puck at center ice, crossed the Stars’ blueline, jumped to avoid hits from Brendan Dillon and Alex Goligoski, who took out each other, and slipped a backhander past goalie Kari Lehtonen for one of the most spectacular tallies of the season.
5. BEST PASS TO SELF
Dallas Stars goal, his 33rd of the season, scored by number 14 Jamie Benn ... with an assist by Jamie Benn, who made a terrific chip between two Panthers as he picked up speed through center ice on April 6.
6. MOST GRACIOUS ASSIST
The Roberto Luongo saga in Vancouver was one of the season's biggest soap operas and it culminated with his stunning trade to Florida before the March 5 trade deadline. An avid and often hilarious tweeter, Luongo couldn't resist tweaking his former team after it was strafed by the Dallas Stars in a 6-1 blowout two days after he departed: "If I was still the back up I coulda came in and mopped this game up nicely....." On April 6, when Luongo made 35 stops in Florida's 3-2 come from behind win over Dallas, his biggest save was the Canucks' dwindling playoff hopes. On the brink of mathematical elimination, Vancouver was spared for one more day by the Stars' failure to pry two points out the Canucks' old 'keeper. Luongo, whose salary is still being partly paid by the Canucks, was only too happy to help out.
7. MOST DISTINCTIVE GOAL CALL
Benn's scoring exploits inspired some unforgettable (and I mean that in less than appetizing sense) commentary by Stars broadcaster Daryl "Razor" Reaugh, who certainly lived up to his job description as "color analyst."
8. MOST SURPRISING SKATER
How does Gustav Nyquist have 28 goals in 55 games for the Red Wings after managing just four in 40 during his previous two seasons? How does GM Ken Holland manage to find these guys? The 24-year-old winger was drafted 121st in 2008, after each team in the league had several chances to snare him. When Nyquist led the Maine Black Bears in scoring for three straight years, he still barely registered as a blip because of his size. (He is now listed at 5’-11”, 185 pounds.) But he has thrived under the pressure to produce at the NHL level for a storied franchise that expects to win. Nyquist was named the league's Second Star of the month for March, when he amassed 12 goals and 18 points, including a four-point night on March 3 while lifting the injury riddled Wings into their 23rd consecutive playoff berth.
9. MOST USELESS GOALS
This is not meant to be a pick-on-Alex-Ovechkin column, especially since he remains one of the game’s most entertaining stars and lethal goal scorers this side of Steven Stamkos, but his 50 goals did nothing to help the Washington Capitals this season. Yes, this was Ovi’s first 50-goal campaign since 2009-10, but his horrible rating of -34 is near the bottom of the league and the Capitals, arguably the league’s most disappointing team, have been eliminated from the playoff chase.
10. BEST SAVE
It was a forgettable season for former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Cam Ward, but on Dec. 9, Vancouver’s Bryan Little could only fling his head back in disbelief after the Hurricanes netminder denied him a seemingly sure goal. Little's reaction after he got back to the bench says it all.
11. MOST SURPRISING GOALIE
Who knew Ben Bishop had this type of season in him? The 27-year-old had appeared in 45 games during parts of five seasons with St. Louis, Ottawa and Tampa Bay, posting a modest overall mark of 18-17-4. But when he finally took over the number one spot with the Lightning, he turned into a star. Bishop’s numbers (37-14-7, .924, 2.23) don’t tell the whole story. He stepped into a tough spot with a team that appeared to be moving laterally at best in the standings. Not only did he turn himself around, he helped turn his team around, too. Now he needs to bounce back from an injured wrist in time for the playoffs.
12. WORST MUGGING
How in the world did Flyers’ goalie Ray Emery get off without a suspension for his unprovoked attack on Capitals counterpart Braden Holtby? The league had been trying to curb certain predatory actions and punish those who scrap with unwilling combatants, but Holtby was clearly unwilling to drop his gloves. When the infamous old Flyers were trailing teams by big scores, it was a safe bet that Dave Schultz, Don Saleski and Bob Kelly would go postal against a lighter, weaker foe in order to send a message. With Emery's Flyers down 7-0 to the Caps, this mess showed just how little had changed. The fact that Emery warned Holtby to “protect yourself” before pounding him like a sack of meal, didn’t mitigate the league's concern. In fact, during a White House ceremony honoring Emery's former team, the Chicago Blackhawks, for its Stanley Cup triumph last summer, Commissioner Gary Bettman was moved to ask the truculent netminder, "So just hypothetically, if there was a rule that said if you cross the red line to get into a fight with the other goaltender and you get a 10-game suspension, would you have done it?" Emery's response: "What? Are you crazy?"
13. WORST SUCKER PUNCH
Shawn Thornton is an honest player who did a dishonest act, but that doesn’t excuse his attack on Penguins pest Brooks Orpik on Dec. 7. Sure, Orpik gets under people’s jerseys. That’s his job. The Bruins took exception to his hit on forward Loui Eriksson earlier in the game, and Thornton, as resident policeman, tried to convince Orpik to face the music by dropping the gloves. When Orpik refused, Thornton used a scrum as an excuse to kick Orpik’s skates out from under him and punch the fallen Penguin twice. Thornton received a 15-game suspension and Orpik didn’t return for three weeks because of the injuries, including a concussion, he suffered on the play.
14. BEST 15 MINUTES (GIVE OR TAKE) OF FAME
So the casual hockey fan knows Ovechkin, Crosby and now ... T.J. Oshie? Well, yes. The St. Blues' shootout specialist even took a call from President Barack Obama after his performance for Team USA against the Russians in the preliminary round. Imagine the odds you could have gotten against that happening. Because of the quirky shootout rules at the Games, the same player can be used repeatedly if the score remains tied after three tries. So Oshie dueled with Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk in a now classic moment.
15. BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT IN SOCHI
To be fair, probably no athlete in any sport was under as much pressure to perform well as Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals’ sniper was trying, under a glaring spotlight on his home country's ice, to atone for Russia's flameout at the Vancouver Games four years earlier. The Russians had a strong Olympics across many sports in 2014, but once again its men’s hockey team, so dominant under the old Soviet system for nearly three decades, fell apart and lost to eventual bronze-medalist Finland in the quarterfinals, 3-1. The loss cost Zinetula Bilyaletdinov his job as head coach.
16. QUICKEST FALL AT THE OLYMPICS
The U.S. men’s team got off to a sizzling start in Sochi, going undefeated in the preliminary round before handily beating the Czechs 5-2 in the quarterfinals. In those first four games, Team USA outscored its foes, 20-6. Then the bottom fell out of the offense as the Americans failed to score another goal in shutout losses to Canada and Finland, and went home without a medal in a tournament that started with so much promise.
17. MOST DISAPPOINTING FREE AGENT
David Clarkson was a great story in New Jersey, a scrapper who could put up some hearty scoring numbers, including 30 goals during the NHL’s last full season, and 15 in the 2012-13 lockout-shortened schedule. Then Toronto inked the forward to a fat, seven-year $36.75 million contract and he became an immediate bust. Hobbled by injuries, Clarkson produced a mere 11 points in 59 games as the Leafs, who once looked like a sure bet to qualify for the playoffs before they went down in flames and were eliminated from postseason contention.
18. SCARIEST MOMENT
It seemed as if time stopped in frozen horror when Dallas forward Rich Peverley collapsed on the Stars’ bench during a game against Columbus on March 14. Before the season, Peverley had undergone surgery to address his irregular heartbeat, but his condition nearly cost him his life. He needed additional surgery and missed the rest of the regular season, and his career may be in jeopardy, but at least fears of the worst were alleviated by the heroic, quick-thinking efforts of medical staff and the league's safety protocols for addressing life-threatening emergencies.
19. WORST HANDLING OF A FRONT-OFFICE HIRE
If the Buffalo Sabres didn’t want Pat LaFontaine to make big decisions in a big decision making position, then they shouldn’t have hired him as their president of hockey operations in the first place. The Hockey Hall of Famer and popular former Sabre had a lot to do in order to turn the woeful team around, he barely got started before he resigned in March, less than four months after he'd been brought on board. LaFontaine hired coach Ted Nolan to replace the departed Ron Rolston and may have planted the seeds of his own undoing when he chose Tim Murray as the team's new GM. Though LaFontaine has remained mum about the matter, the hot rumor after his sudden departure was of a conflict with Murray about the decision to trade goalie Ryan Miller before the March 5 deadline. (LaFontaine was against it.) Whatever the reason, the incident only conveyed the impression that the Sabres were still in disarray and had taken a step backward after they finally started to make some progress on their long climb back to respectability.
20. WORST TRADE PARLAY
When you piece together their ill-conceived deals to acquire and then discard Tomas Vanek, the New York Islanders essentially dealt Matt Moulson, a conditional first-round pick and a second-rounder for dicey prospect Sebastian Collberg and a second-rounder. The Islanders have a history of muffing drafts and trades, but this saga was one of the worst examples.