Ten years later, awakening the lost NHL season.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two pieces hypothesizing what might have happened if the 2004-05 season hadn’t been cancelled.

What if I told you that the 2004-05 lockout was just a nightmare and didn’t actually happen?

No, I’m not making an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, although it’s tempting. At this point, there’s a new documentary about anything remotely significant.

This NHL season will mark the 10th anniversary of the 2004-05 lockout, and I figured it would be fun to imagine what might have occurred if the NHL had the common sense not to cancel an entire season by virtue of labor strife. In case you all forgot, in 2005 the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded for the first time since 1919. A Spanish Flu epidemic swept across the globe in 1919 and forced the cancellation of the playoffs. That’s a more valid premise than a ridiculous labor dispute.

Anyway, my point isn’t to force anyone to remember the pain of a lost season. It’s to wonder who would have hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2005.

It’s an interesting thought exercise. After the previous season, two legends (Mark Messier and Ron Francis) retired. Al MacInnis and Scott Stevens, and their 25 combined All-Star Game appearances, retired too.

At the same time, a new group of talented players played made their debuts in 2003-04: Patrice Bergeron, Dustin Brown, Ryan Kesler and Marc-Andre Fleury. As most of you know, the Tampa Bay Lightning finished as the top seed in the Eastern Conference and ended up winning the Cup in a seven-game series over the Calgary Flames. Earlier in the playoffs, the Flames rode the goaltending of Miikka Kiprusoff to an upset of Presidents Trophy winner Detroit.

There’s a lot to be considered when it comes to who makes the playoffs and makes a run for the Cup. Free agency, coaching changes and GM changes alter the landscape of the league every off-season. At the same time, I don’t have the time to predict all of that, so let’s just pretend that the rosters stayed the same for the most part.

At the time of the lockout, Detroit was pulling away as the NHL’s team to beat. However, the Red Wings were wouldn’t make the Finals until 2008. Mike Babcock was still the head coach in Anaheim. The talent was present in Detroit, enough to win the President’s Trophy again and get the top seed in the West. Pavel Datsyuk was the Red Wings’ leading goal-scorer with 30 in 2003-04 (I’m thinking 35 in 2004-05) and they had a great supporting cast with Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom. Brett Hull was a big contributor to their success in 2003-04, but he retired a short time after the 2005-06 season started. I think his point total would decline in 2004-05, but he’d still play at a high level.

The rest of the West: I think San Jose will win the Pacific Division and get the number-two seed, while Vancouver will win the Northwest. The Sharks have a star with Patrick Marleau and a good goalie In Evgeni Nabokov. Those two will help them breeze through the Pacific. The Canucks also have a huge scoring threat in Markus Naslund (84 points in 2003-04) and the Sedin brothers were starting to get into their groove. The goaltending would be shaky with Dan Cloutier, but he would do enough to outlast Calgary and Colorado in the Northwest. The rest of the spots would be filled by the Flames, Avalanche, Blues, Stars and Kings.

In the Eastern Conference, the Lightning, Bruins and Flyers will fight for the number one spot. Eventually, the Lightning will ride the skills of Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier to the top. The Flyers will win the Atlantic Division and get the two seed. Philadelphia is stacked with Mark Recchi, John LeClair and Jeremy Roenick. The net is filled by Robert Esche, who is decent, but the Flyers rely on offense and that will help them take the Atlantic. The Bruins will then take the Northeast and pick up the third seed. Boston has Joe Thornton (73 points) along with Bergeron, who’s become a rising star. Andrew Raycroft is the starting goalie and after winning the Calder Trophy in 2004, he definitely has the Bruins defense under control. The rest of the spots will be filled by Toronto, New Jersey, Buffalo, Ottawa and Carolina.

So here we go. In the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, the Red Wings cruise to a 4-1 series win over the Kings, while San Jose has to battle to get past Dallas. The Stars take a 3-2 series lead on the Sharks, but San Jose comes back to win in overtime in Game 6 and roll to a win in Game 7. Vancouver fights off a pesky St. Louis squad in six games, while Calgary and Colorado has an amazing seven-game series that ends with the Flames winning in in double overtime in Game 7 to move on.

In the second round, Detroit and Calgary have an entertaining series. The Flames win Game 1 in a surprising blowout, then drop three straight. Calgary fights back to win Game 5, but Detroit wins in convincing fashion two days later to move on to the Conference Finals. Meanwhile, the Canucks and Sharks go at it for six games, but Vancouver has a couple more weapons and eliminates San Jose at home in Game 6.
Detroit and Vancouver then fight for the right to make it to the Cup Finals. It goes back and forth with the home team winning every game. The goaltending is atrocious as both Cloutier and Manny Legace are pulled for Johan Hedberg and Curtis Joseph. The two backup help turn things around and the series heads to Game 7 in Detroit. Tied 3-3 in overtime, Datsyuk beats Hedberg blocker-side, sending the crowd into a frenzy and the Red Wings to the Finals.

Now let’s look at the East.

Tampa Bay gets off to a blazing start against Carolina, winning the first two games at home. However, the Hurricanes tie the series at 2-2 thanks to the surprising play of goalie Kevin Weekes. The Lightning get back on track in the next two games and defeat the ‘Canes in six.

Ottawa surprises the Flyers on the road, taking the first two games thanks to the stellar play of Marian Hossa and Daniel Alfredsson. However, Philadelphia bounces back and wins four straight to move on to the second round.

Buffalo then pulls off the big upset in the first round by beating Boston in five games. Ryan Miller takes the starting goalie spot from Martin Biron late in the regular season and slams the door on the Bruins, shutting them out in the first two games. Boston bounces back in Game 3, but a combined scoring surge from Daniel Briere and Miroslav Satan helps the Sabres take out the Bruins in Games 4 and 5 to move on to the second round. There they face the Maple Leafs, who outlast the Devils in seven games. Ed Belfour outduels Martin Brodeur in Game 7 and Toronto wins 2-1 on a late goal by Mats Sundin.

The Lightning face off against the Sabres in the semifinals and fare better than Boston. Tampa Bay gets a split at home and takes two games at Buffalo. However, the Sabres find their scoring attack, again led by Briere, and win three straight including a double-overtime thriller on the road to get to the Conference Finals. In the other matchup, Philadelphia takes on Toronto. This ends up being a seven-game thriller, with each team winning two games and then splitting Games 5 and 6 at home. With a trip to the Conference Finals on the line, Roenick and LeClair put the Flyers up 2-0 in the first. However, the Leafs tie it up with two in the second and then take the lead on a Darcy Tucker goal in the third. Philadelphia has numerous scoring chances in the final two minutes, but can’t get one past Belfour and Toronto heads to the Conference Finals.

The Leafs and Sabres then do battle for the right to play the Red Wings in the Cup Finals. It makes for an enticing set-up. Buffalo fans desperately want a chance to win their first title after getting screwed over (Yeah, I said it!) against Dallas in 1999. At the same time, Toronto followers were hoping to make the Finals for the first time in almost 40 years. Both teams get a convincing win in the first two games, but then it becomes a goalie battle and it ends up going to seven games. In the end, youth wins out and the Sabres win 3-2 to make it back to the Cup Finals and disappointing the nation of Canada.

It appears to be mismatch on paper; the powerful Red Wings look as if they will roll over the Sabres. However, it is Buffalo that starts off blazing. The Sabres blitz Detroit for a 5-1 win in Game 1 and then steal Game 2 in overtime. The Red Wings get Game 3 back as Zetterberg nets a hat trick in a 4-2 victory, but the Sabres go up 3-1 in the series with a dominant victory at home in Game 4. With its back against the wall, Detroit digs deep and beats Buffalo at home to stave off elimination. The Red Wings make it look like the series will go seven games thanks to a 3-2 lead late in the third period. The Sabres aren’t done, though.

With less than three minutes left, Chris Drury ties the game at 3-3 with a one-timer. The contest goes into double overtime, where midway through the frame, Briere becomes a Buffalo legend as he fires a wrister past Joseph and wins the Cup for the Sabres. Joyful riots occur all over the city as it enjoys its first professional sports title.

That was fun. Hopefully, a lockout of this caliber will never occur again, but if it does, we can go through this experience a second time and wonder what might have been.

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