The latest NHL season was a sprint throughout.
During the darkest moments of a prolonged lockout, it appeared hockey fans would again be robbed of an entire slate of regular season and playoff games. But then both sides reached an agreement in the 11th hour to preserve some semblance of a legitimate Stanley Cup campaign.
A bizarrely fast regular season set the stage for an amazing playoff run that featured a myriad of memorable moments. Chicago claimed its second title in four years, stunning Boston on the road in Game 6 with a monumental late comeback.
The Blackhawks' thrilling victory put a bow on an unbelievable year of North American hockey that once again captivated fans across the world. Here's a review of what we learned throughout this recent installment of NHL action.
The Blackhawks carried a sizable bullseye on their backs throughout the season, but it didn't stop them from bulldozing their way to its second Stanley Cup title since 2010.
Chicago opened the season with a record-setting 24-game point streak, immediately emerging as a heavy title favorite. Although the team lost some momentum during the final stretch of the regular season, it coasted to the playoffs' top overall seed.
There were moments when the Blackhawks appeared doomed (down 3-1 against Detroit in the Western Conference semifinal series; down 2-1 on the scoreboard during the closing moments of Game 6 in Boston), but this savvy squad was always able to battle back with its back against the wall.
That resilience makes Chicago the early favorite to repeat as league champion in 2014.
The Capitals continue to fall flat in the postseason, putting the entire organization in an embarrassing situation yet again. Washington was tremendous in April, earning a No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Caps built a 3-2 series advantage against the New York Rangers in opening-round action before suffering back-to-back shutout losses and another early exit. Washington lost Game 7 on home ice 5-0.
Every year, this team enters the postseason as a conference favorite, but it has yet to live up to those lofty expectations. The Capitals are at a crossroads, and everyone from players to coaches and front office personnel is officially on notice.
No one was more dominant than Ovechkin during the second half of the season. He ended the year with 32 goals, claiming his third career NHL scoring title.
The Russian superstar tallied 23 goals and 13 assists during the final 23 games of the regular season and put on an offensive clinic as Washington went 11-1-1 in April. He excelled while growing extremely comfortable at right wing, a position switch that seemed to reinvigorate him.
After an underwhelming playoff performance, it was revealed he played the entire Rangers series on a broken foot.
Yet despite all the individual success, Ovechkin remains the face of a franchise defined by failures on the big stage.
Like most superstars, Crosby is an incredibly divisive figure to the general public. Feel free to dislike the guy for his attitude or the uniform he wears, but you simply can't hate on his game.
Crosby, who already owns a Stanley Cup title and golden goal in the Winter Olympics, added another feather to his cap this spring with an incredible comeback from injury. A broken jaw cost the Penguins' captain 13 total games, including the first playoff matchup against the Islanders.
He returned to the ice with protective head gear and his usual penchant for coming up big with all eyes on him. Crosby scored twice during the first period of his first game back and finished with 15 points in 14 playoff games.
It's the fourth time the 25-year-old has reached the 15-point mark in a single postseason.
Many wondered whether a lockout-shortened regular season would tarnish the game. While staunch historians of the NHL may not have enjoyed the 48-contest campaign, it created a more competitive environment on the ice.
Teams couldn't afford a slow start and every point became tremendously more paramount with 34 fewer games. The entire month of April featured playoff intensity as clusters of teams battled for playoff position.
Perhaps the lockout was a double-edged sword and this was the shot in the arm hockey had been searching for.
Say goodbye to everything you know about the current structure of NHL competition. Years of debate has resulted in a realignment that is set to reconstitute the league in several facets starting next season.
Moving forward, there will be two divisions per conference and a tweaked playoff system that essentially creates a "wild card" race within those divisions. The Blue Jackets and Red Wings are bound for the Eastern Conference, shaking up old rivalries and creating new ones.
The approval of this revamping has built considerable intrigue among NHL fans, so we'll see if it's a successful step for the league.
Toronto turned heads when it dismissed general manager Brian Burke shortly before the regular season. Whatever message the move sent, it worked out well for the Maple Leafs.
The squad was fun to watch, competing with a relentlessly physical approach that helped turn around the franchise's fortunes. Young playmakers like James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Clarke MacArthur bought into the new system and enjoyed career seasons.
The team halted a nine-year playoff drought and pushed eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston to the edge of elimination. A blown three-goal lead in Game 7 of a first-round showdown against the Bruins should only fuel the fire of a hungry team.
Edmonton remains mired in mediocrity despite a roster brimming with highly touted players. The Oilers fell 10 points shy of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and failed to quell concerns about the direction of this once-proud franchise.
The team stumbled out of the gates and was simply awful when it came to manufacturing solid possessions. Edmonton finished second in the league in turnovers and saw promising forwards Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle regress.
There's a lot of work to be done in Alberta, and it starts with convincing a young core that the clock is ticking toward yet another rebuilding process.
As Edmonton slid further into the NHL abyss, the Islanders finally made significant strides toward respectability. Led by rising superstar John Tavares, New York reached the postseason for the first time since 2007.
The team showed grit getting into the playoffs with enthused play at the end of the regular season. Aside from a lopsided loss in Game 1, New York refused to let top-seeded Pittsburgh play the role of bully.
The Islanders claimed a pair of victories against the Penguins and took Pittsburgh to overtime in Game 6. Needless to say, things are looking up for New York's other team.
Columbus quickly moved on after shipping its franchise cornerstone and former No. 1 pick to the Rangers. The Blue Jackets finished the regular season tied with Minnesota for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs, left on the doorstep by virtue of tiebreaker procedures.
John Davidson has to be happy with the new direction of the organization after several lean years in Columbus. The Blue Jackets own three first-round picks in the draft, which presents a multitude of opportunities for the team to improve by infusing young talent or using the picks as trade assets.
Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky was a revelation between the pipes, and it's imperative Columbus ensures his return. Columbus moves to the Eastern Conference next season and should immediately challenge for a postseason appearance.
Just when it appeared Detroit was destined to finally miss a playoff tournament, the team turned on the jets and sprinted to the finish line. The Red Wings rallied from the brink of elimination by winning the final four games of the regular season to clinch a 22nd consecutive postseason berth.
It's the fifth-longest streak in NHL history and a testament to constant attention to detail in Detroit. The Red Wings stayed hot in the playoffs, edging Anaheim in seven games before falling to Chicago in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.
It turns out Rask was ready for the challenge of replacing 2011 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas. The 26-year-old kept Boston afloat at times during an impressive playoff run.
After finishing the regular season 19-10-5 with a 2.00 GAA and five shutouts, Rask elevated his game in the postseason. He stopped 94 percent of opponents' shots, accumulating a 1.88 GAA and three shutouts.
Rask, a restricted free agent, must carry the weight of Chicago's late Game 6 rally, but that doesn't diminish what he accomplished during a career-defining playoff performance. He didn't lose a single game in regulation between May 12 and June 24.
The 2009 Stanley Cup title must seem like a long time ago to Pittsburgh fans. The Penguins, who reached back-to-back finals in 2008 and 2009, haven't recorded a win beyond conference semifinal action in four years.
Following consecutive first-round exits, the Penguins cruised past the Islanders and Senators this spring en route to an Eastern Conference title showdown versus Boston. The Bruins embarrassed Pittsburgh, sweeping the series while surrendering just two goals in four games.
Coach Dan Bylsma received a contract extension, but could still be on the hot seat after another playoff performance that failed to match expectations.
The Winter Classic has quickly become a staple of the NHL season. The majesty of watching squads compete outdoors in large venues is unique and creates a level of excitement that's hard to match during the regular season.
This year's event fell victim to the lockout, costing fans an opportunity to see Detroit and Toronto square off at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Watching a pair of playoff teams battle in The Big House would've been a sight to behold.
Fortunately, fans and the league will get a second chance to enjoy the matchup. The Maple Leafs and Red Wings meet at Michigan Stadium on New Year's Day 2014.
NHL fans got more than their money's worth at arenas throughout North America during the postseason. All 15 playoff series featured at least one overtime game, and we were treated to high-stakes drama on a regular basis.
Toronto and Boston battled into overtime of Game 7 in the first round, while Chicago advanced to the Western Conference Finals with a Game 7 overtime win against Detroit. The Stanley Cup Finals featured three overtime games, including a wild triple-overtime duel in Game 1.
Even noncommittal hockey fans can agree there's nothing quite like sudden-death NHL overtime in the postseason.
Quick may not be an annual Vezina Trophy contender, but for the second consecutive spring, he was money during the playoffs.
The 27-year-old netminder entered the 2012 playoffs with a career postseason record of 4-8 and has now won 25 games in the past two years.
He compiled three shutouts for the second straight postseason and stopped 93 percent of shots, nearly matching the mark that helped earn him the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy. Quick suddenly has 50 playoff appearances and is known as one of the league's elite postseason goaltenders.
Think the Flyers wish they held on to this 24-year-old phenom?
Bobrovsky, acquired by Columbus from Philadelphia in a trade that hardly made anyone blink, earned the 2013 Vezina Trophy with a breakout campaign. He finished 21-11-6 with 2.00 GAA, four shutouts and had a .932 save percentage.
Bobrovsky fueled a resoundingly successful season for the Blue Jackets that came tantalizingly close to extending into the postseason. The restricted free agent is coveted by the KHL and Columbus has work to do to make sure he remains in the States.
The Original Six organizations—Boston, Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, Detroit and the New York Rangers—each reached the postseason for the first time in 17 years. Classic NHL rivalries rekindled during the playoffs, as four bouts featured two Original Six squads going toe-to-toe.
Boston and Toronto went the distance (and then some) in a riveting first-round matchup. The Blackhawks and Red Wings also required a Game 7 overtime visit in Round 2.
Boston beat the Rangers en route to the Stanley Cup finals, where a clash with Chicago awaited. It was a heavy dose of awesome for NHL historians.
The 2012 Vezina Trophy winner was a finalist for the award again this season and carried the Rangers throughout a challenging season. He pushed New York past Washington in the first round with consecutive shutout victories in Games 6 and 7.
Lundqvist becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2014, and you'd better believe general managers would walk over burning coals for a chance to sit down at the negotiation table with one of the game's true superstars.
He's handled the media storm in Manhattan with grace, and it will be interesting to see if the Rangers are able to strike an extension with the goalie before next season.
The Coyotes remain an economic calamity, killing any chance for legitimate sustained success in the desert. Phoenix reached the Western Conference Final last year, but failed to make another playoff appearance in 2013.
Goalie Mike Smith, an unrestricted free agent, is almost assuredly on his way out of town. Add him to a growing list of Coyotes players who couldn't afford to stay put.
Former San Jose head man Greg Jamison was supposed to take over the organization in January, but his deal crumbled and left Phoenix without a buyer once again. The franchise is bleeding money (reported losses of more than $20 million in 2012, according to Forbes) and the failure to remedy a deteriorating situation is a black eye for the league.
San Jose used the ninth overall draft pick on Couture in 2007. It's a decision that is paying large dividends these days.
Couture accumulated 37 points in 48 regular-season games. This success follows consecutive 30-goal seasons for the 24-year-old forward.
He picked up five goals and six assists in 11 postseason contests, carrying the offensive load at times during a run to Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Kings. Couture is a force to be reckoned with near the net and is only now beginning to tap into his elite puck-distribution abilities.
San Jose has found the face of its franchise for the foreseeable future.
The Flyers' hopes for a strong season went down in flames despite boasting one of the highest-paid rosters in the league. Philadelphia finished outside of the playoff field after a rash of injuries and underwhelming performances doomed the squad.
Things get trickier for the Flyers moving forward due to serious salary cap issues. Philadelphia already announced it's buying out the contracts of one-time headline-grabbing acquisitions Danny Briere and Ilya Bryzgalov.
The team currently remains connected with 23 contracted players, the highest total in the NHL.
You'll be hard-pressed to duplicate the drama of an NHL Game 7 anywhere else on the sports spectrum. The 2013 playoffs featured five seven-game series, including two that reached overtime.
Boston and Chicago, the squads that ultimately reached the Stanley Cup Final, each survived a Game 7 overtime thriller. When the lamp lights up to end a series, the ensuing celebration is always spectacular.
Fortunately for Floridians, there's plenty to do during the winter in the Sunshine State. The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning finished 30th and 28th, respectively, in regular-season point totals.
The Panthers were atrocious, ranking 30th in goals against and tied for 29th in goals scored. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay underachieved tremendously for a team brimming with talent.
The Lightning could be in line for a significant rebound next season, but expect tough times to continue for their neighbors.
The coaching carousel reached a fever pitch by season's end, as several franchise stalwarts were sent packing. Team leaders faced a significant challenge with the shortened season and lack of training camp.
Playoff participants John Tortorella (Rangers) and Alain Vigneault (Canucks) were each handed pink slips after postseason exits and subsequently switched benches. Sabres veteran Lindy Ruff was let go in Buffalo before resurfacing in Dallas.
Joe Sacco (Avalanche) and Guy Boucher (Tampa Bay) were also told to get out of town.