Editor’s Note: This is the second of two pieces hypothesizing what might have happened if the 2004-05 season hadn’t been cancelled.
It is September 2004. NHL training camps have opened for business. The surprising Tampa Bay Lightning are the defending champions. Hope springs eternal across Canada, where the national Stanley Cup drought has reached a seemingly interminable ten seasons. Across the Detroit river, the Red Wings are looking strong. That’s been the case most years of late — every year from 1996 to 2000 the Wings either won the Cup or were eliminated by the Avalanche — but no, this season is special.
A miraculous 11th-hour bargaining session allowed the NHL to avoid a work stoppage, ensuring a full 82-game season. The miracle was in the details. The players’ union agreed to an unprecedented salary-cap structure, taking a small step toward achieving competitive balance among markets large and small. The owners agreed to tweak the rules to improve the style and speed of the game. The era of so-called “clutch and grab” hockey is dead. Speedy skaters can speed without fear of mutilation at the hands of gargantuan defenders. The game is faster and more exciting. More scoring could be in store.
What transpires is only partly predictable.
We learn that two of the game’s brightest stars, Teemu Selanne and Jeremy Roenick, will miss extended time due to severe injuries. Selanne would rather sit and rest his ailing knee than suffer through the embarrassment of another 16-goal, 32-point season in Colorado. Roenick can’t skate while he wades through a scary post-concussion fog. He isn’t sure when he will be able to play again. As it turns out, both players will miss the entire season.
The Minnesota Wild, sparked by breakout forward Marian Gaborik and the always-reliable goaltending of Dwayne Roloson, jump out to a strong start. The last-place team in the Northwest Division in ‘03-04, the Wild are leading the division by the end of the month.
The San Jose Sharks knew that Jonathan Cheechoo had special hands when they drafted him in the second round in 1998. But thanks to the new rules, the 24-year-old speedster has scored 19 goals by the end of the month, on pace to score 60 for the season. No player has scored that many goals in a season since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr did it in 1995-96.
Oh, and the Lightning? It’s looking like they captured lightning in a bottle in spring. They are struggling to keep pace with division rivals Washington and Carolina, who are co-leading the Southeast Division by month’s end behind young forwards Alex Ovechkin and Eric Staal, respectively. Fiery head coach John Tortorella says some things the beat reporters can’t print.
Well, the Wild have regressed after their early surge. Some wonder if that will become a trend. The Vancouver Canucks, led by twin forwards Daniel and Henrik Sedin, are back in first place in the Northwest Division.
Ovechkin scores a wraparound shootout goal against the Hurricanes that gets a full week in rotation on SportsCenter’s Top 10 countdown. (Since the NHL resolved its labor dispute before the season, it was able to retain its contract with ESPN, which routinely plays hockey games and highlights in lieu of non-conference college basketball). Ovechkin’s gravity-defying stickwork draws the ire of Tortorella, who says some things the beat reporters can’t print.
Unlike its Finals opponent, Calgary is showing no symptoms of a hangover. By the midway point of the season, the Flames have overtaken the Canucks with a league-high 56 points. They have arguably the game’s best scoring forward (Jarome Iginla), best goaltender (Miikka Kiprusoff, who’s leading the NHL in wins, save percentage and minutes) and the best emerging defenseman. Rookie Dion Phaneuf has 10 goals at the midway point, and his physical game has more than made up for the traded Denis Gauthier.
While Phaneuf’s first rodeo looks like a winner, Brett Hull looks like he’s in the midst of his last with the struggling Phoenix Coyotes. They un-retired Bobby Hull’s number 9 (his number with the old Winnipeg Jets) and gave it to his son, a 25-goal scorer the year before with Detroit. But Brett looks every bit the 40-year-old man he is in a younger, faster league and has only four goals through the first 40 games. He’s been demoted to the fourth line — no place for the NHL’s third-leading all-time goal scorer.
The annual NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta represents a changing of the guard. Ovechkin, Staal, hometown favorite Ilya Kovalchuk and Phaneuf skate alongside 34-year-old Brendan Shanahan, 37-year-old Luc Robitaille and 42-year-old Chris Chelios, who is almost certainly playing out his last season. The West wins, 11-10. Gary Bettman is booed. Tortorella, who was begging for more defense from the Eastern Conference squad until the final horn, says some things the beat reporters can’t print.
Given a few days to overthink this during the All-Star break, Phoenix Coyotes co-owner Wayne Gretzky fires Rick Bowness on February 20 and names himself interim head coach. He vows to find a permanent replacement after the season.
The playoff races are rounding into shape. In the East, five teams (Carolina, Ottawa, Buffalo, Boston and New Jersey) have clinched playoff berths. Another five (Montreal, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Toronto and the New York Rangers) are realistically fighting for three spots.
In the West, the first seven spots are locked up by the end of the month. Detroit, Vancouver, San Jose, Dallas, Calgary, Nashville and Colorado are in. Anaheim and Edmonton, led by its young top line of Raffi Torres, Jarret Stoll and Ales Hemsky, are the two teams still on the bubble.
The Ottawa Senators outscore everyone en route to the Presidents Trophy. Jason Spezza, advancing to his third Stanley Cup playoffs at the ripe age of 21, has the advantage of skating between Daniel Alfredsson and Marian Hossa every night, and leads the NHL in assists. Cheechoo gets his 60 goals.
The Sens burn through the eighth-seeded Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. Tortorella says … well, you can imagine. In the East’s other first-round matchups: The second-seeded Devils need seven games to eliminate the Flyers in a matchup of geographic rivals. The three-six matchup produces the only upset, with the Rangers beating the Hurricanes in seven games behind an upstart rookie goalie named Henrik Lundqvist, who seized the starting job from a revolving-door committee in March. The kid might have a future. The fourth-seeded Bruins eliminate the fifth-seeded Canadiens in a spirited first-round battle. Andrew Raycroft doesn’t allow a goal in Game 7, beating Jose Theodore — a reverse of the game that eliminated the Bruins the year before.
The Oilers squeak into the Western Conference bracket as the eighth seed, then bow out in a five-game first-round series against the top-seeded Stars. The second-seeded Red Wings oust the Canucks in six. The third-seeded Flames get outstanding goaltending from Kiprusoff in sweeping the Predators. The fourth-seeded Sharks draw the Colorado Avalanche, and it’s a bad draw. A strong series from playoff veterans Joe Sakic, Pierre Turgeon and goalie David Aebischer upends the speedy sharks in a surprising five games.
Marty Brodeur and Scott Stevens are rekindling their 2003 magic. After that seven-game win over the Flyers in the first round, they draw the Boston Bruins in the second round. That series goes the distance, too, and a Game 7 matchup between Raycroft and Brodeur is too much for Raycroft. Scott Stevens blocks ten shots by himself and Brodeur saves another 42 in a 3-1 Devils win. In the other Eastern Conference semifinal, the high-scoring Senators wear down Lundqvist as Ottawa advances in six games. That sets up a rematch of the 2003 conference final between Burns’ Devils and Jacques Martin’s Senators.
The tempo is faster this time, and that favors Ottawa early. Alfredsson notches a hat trick in Game 1, a 4-2 win, and Hossa scores twice in a Game 2 victory. Brodeur reaches deep to pitch a shutout in Game 3 in New Jersey. Game 4 is tied 2-2 late in the third period when defensive-minded center Mike Fisher — on the ice primarily to keep an eye on Devils sniper Patrik Elias — steals the puck in the neutral zone, skates in on Brodeur, and stuns the hometown fans with a forehand snipe to win the game. Needing a win to save their season, the Devils fall behind 2-0 after one period on goals by Spezza and Hossa. The Devils are controlling the puck when Patrick Lalime stops Elias on a breakaway midway through the second period, and that shifts the momentum permanently in Ottawa’s favor. The teams trade goals late in the third period, and Ottawa clinches its first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals with a 3-1 win.
The Stars and Avs meet in a rematch of last year’s first-round series, won by Colorado in five. Dallas holds home-ice advantage and wins the first two games on home ice, both in overtime. Marty Turco stuns the Pepsi Center crowd — and reminds them of Parick Roy — with a 49-save shutout in Game 3. Before the Stars can sweep, Joe Sakic and Alex Tanguay each score twice in Game 4, a 4-3 Colorado win. But the Stars win the series at home behind two goals from Mike Modano and a 39-save performance from Turco in Game 5. They’ll face Detroit, which eliminates defending champion Calgary in a heated six-game battle. Game 1, a two-overtime thriller, ends on a goal by Pavel Datsyuk. Game 2, a three-overtime thriller, ends on a goal by Brendan Shanahan. By Game 3, both goalies (Kiprusoff and Manny Legace) need more than a day off, but only Kiprusoff looks worse for the wear. Both teams trudge through Game 3 and Detroit wins ugly, 3-2. Kiprusoff reaches back for one last trick — a 2-0 shutout — in Game 4. Game 5 goes to Detroit, 5-3, as Datsyuk scores twice to make the difference.
Dallas-Detroit is a rematch of the 1998 Western Conference final, but much has changed since then. Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom and Shanahan are still Red Wings; Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen and Sergei Zubov are still Stars. Datsyuk is the difference-maker, though. No combination of Modano, Jason Arnott and Pierre Turgeon proves to be an adequate matchup as Datsyuk scores another eight goals in the series. Turco — in his best postseason performance to date — allows the Stars to force a game seven on home ice by making 45 saves in Game 6. The Stars win 3-1 despite being outshot 46-28. Their luck ends there, however, as goals by Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Yzerman give the Wings a 4-2 win at the American Airlines Center.
The Senators are the younger team, with many players appearing in their first Finals. The Red Wings are older, with many experienced veterans. But the similarities between the teams outweigh the differences. Neither Lalime nor Legace has needed to steal any games in the postseason because their teams skate so well. Each side features a standout top line and top defense pair (Lidstrom/Mathieu Schneider for Detroit and Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden for Ottawa) that can match up with any in the NHL. Their battles go back and forth. Lidstrom and Schneider mostly neutralize the Spezza line in Game 1, a 4-2 Detroit win. Hossa slices through the defense for the only two goals of Game 2 as Lalime makes 33 saves for the shutout. The series shifts back to Detroit, where the octopi fly in Game 3. The old men step to the forefront as Schneider has three assists, Shanahan scores two goals, and the Wings win 4-3. The Senators even the series with an overtime win in Game 4; Redden tees one up with 10 seconds left in the first OT to end a wild 5-4 battle. Back in Ottawa, the Sens move within one game of the Cup with another 5-goal outburst. After Alfredsson’s third goal of the game midway through the second period, backup Curtis Joseph makes his first appearance of the postseason to finish out the game, a 5-1 blowout win. Turns out that’s more momentum than the Wings can handle in Game 6. Goals by Tomas Holmstrom, Kirk Maltby and Datsyuk put Ottawa in an early hole, but Spezza assists Hossa on two goals and Alfredsson on another in the second. Tied 3-3 in the third period, Chara tees one up on the power play with 3:33 left in the game. An empty-net goal late gives Ottawa a 5-3 win in the game and a 4-2 win in the series.
Canada’s Stanley Cup drought is over. Patrick Lalime is a champion goalie. The Presidents Trophy champion wins the Cup for the fourth time in seven seasons. Detroit GM Ken Holland has enough reason to bring in Mike Babcock as his new head coach — or does he?
It’s a pivotal season for more reasons than we can imagine.