And here we are, my last blog of the 2011-12 season, my summer vacation upon me.
And what better way to say goodbye for the summer than to look back at my fondest thoughts of what was another intriguing and unpredictable season in the NHL.
Sens kept us guessing
My most striking memory of training camp in September was chatting on the phone with Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray. He talked about how this would be a rebuilding season. The season before, Murray had begun to change over more than half the roster. The market place in the lead-up to the 2011-12 season had been warned: Brace yourselves, Sens fans, it’s going to be a long year but for the right purpose.
Well, well, either Murray was fooling all of us (I picked Ottawa to finish near the basement in the East) or even he was surprised at how his group advanced the program must faster than he had ever believed possible. We think the latter.
It didn’t start off that way. The first three weeks of the regular season were a total disaster for the Senators, blown out nearly every night. At the draft in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean laughed as he recalled how he felt at the time, wondered if he’d even last the season.
Last the season? How about a well-deserved Jack Adams Award nomination for MacLean as the Senators stunned the hockey world with a playoff berth and a near first-round upset against the top-ranked New York Rangers?
To me, there were few better stories this season than Norris Trophy-winning Erik Karlsson and the surprising Ottawa Senators.
Coyotes, Blues bounced back
At some point, you just shake your head at how coach Dave Tippett finds ways to deliver in the desert. Franchise instability and limited resources haven’t stopped Tippett from once again -- and I repeat, once again -- exceeding everyone’s expectations. With the defection of star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov last summer, dire were the predictions once again -- and I repeat, once again -- for the Coyotes. But rising from the scrap heap was reclamation project Mike Smith (thank you, Sean Burke) and the Coyotes captured the Pacific Division with 97 points, and they weren’t done there. A first-round playoff series win over the Chicago Blackhawks and a second-round win over the Nashville Predators produced a Western Conference finals berth that simply no one, not anyone in the Coyotes organization, could have ever imagined a year ago this time.
That’s why you play the games.
Unfortunately, the offseason now brings us yet again to the uncertain future of the franchise. How much longer can the Coyotes survive this mess?
Hockey, meanwhile, is back in vogue again in St. Louis thanks to a 109-point season that crystalized after Ken Hitchcock was brought in as coach in November. A young Blues core played up to its capabilities and with unrelenting focus, Hitchcock pushing all the right buttons en route to a slam dunk Jack Adams Award. I was in St. Louis for a first-round series win over the veteran San Jose Sharks. The building shook in a Game 5-clinching victory. The Blues were alive again in St. Louis after more than a decade adrift.
Kings with a crown
You know how this blog must end: Talking about the team holding North America’s most famous trophy above its head.
I remember a phone conversation with Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi after he brought in Darryl Sutter as coach. The critics had a field day that week with Lombardi, essentially mocking him for summoning Sutter off his Alberta farm and back behind an NHL bench for the first time in years. And then I remember what Lombardi told me that day in December: This was the right move, and the only move, and he had no doubt whatsoever that Sutter -- his old pal from their San Jose days -- would salvage a season gone wrong.
It’s easy to say you knew it would work out after you win the Stanley Cup, but I’ll always remember the conviction in Lombardi’s voice that December day. He had no doubt whatsoever it was the right move. Did he know at the time his own job depended on it? I don’t doubt it for a second.
It’s funny, though, even with Sutter at the helm for more than half a season, the Kings entered the postseason still with a little self-doubt, having been swept in a home-and-home by the rival Sharks to end the regular season and drop out of the Pacific Division penthouse. They would begin the playoffs as No. 8 seed against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks.
One win. That’s all it took. Drew Doughty would tell me midway through the Kings’ playoff run that his team’s opening victory in the very first game of the playoffs cemented his team’s belief that it could achieve anything it wanted. And they certainly played like it from that point on.
My own moment of reckoning was Game 2 of the second round against St. Louis. I had flown in from Phoenix, where I had covered the opening two games between the Coyotes and Predators' series. The Blues had dropped Game 1 at home to the Kings and most people expected them to come out like gorillas and tie the series. Granted, the Blues were without team MVP Alex Pietrangelo for Game 2, but the way the Kings came out and hammered the Blues early and often that night blew me away. Mike Richards scored 31 seconds into the game. By the end of the first period, it was 4-0 Kings and you had no doubt in your mind the game, and the series, was over.
I remember turning to colleague Craig Custance of ESPN The Magazine in the press box and saying, "Nobody is going to beat this team now."
I was preaching to the converted. Custance had picked the Kings to upset the Canucks in the first round.
The Coyotes had little chance in the conference finals, their surprising run out of steam against a well-oiled Kings machine.
The Cup finals presented a matchup of two teams playing a positive brand of hockey in the Devils and Kings, which was welcome after much shot blocking and defensive play for much of the playoffs.
Many of my colleagues in the East picked the Devils. I’m not here to mock them. Frankly, I likely would have done the same had I been East all spring. But I spent the playoffs in the West, much of it around the Kings. Before the series, I picked the Kings to win in six.
I was bang on, which was comforting after being so horribly wrong the first two rounds of the playoffs.
But such is the NHL today. Seven years removed from the advent of a salary cap, the spreading of the talent over 30 teams has never been more even. No. 1 seeds and No. 8 seeds won’t mean a thing moving forward in this system. The name of the game will be to just get into the playoffs and get hot at the right time.
That’s what the Kings did this season. And they were a joy to watch as they did.
Enjoy the summer, folks. I know I will.