It’s been a little over a month since the 2017-18 NHL season ended, and it was definitely one for the record books. This was a year that saw many firsts, and sadly, many lasts. Let’s take a look at everything that transpired this past year.
Starting with the firsts? Obviously, expansion was the biggest story this season, as the 30 team National Hockey League became 31, with the Vegas Golden Knights joining the league, becoming the first expansion team in the NHL since the Columbus Bluejackets and the Minnesota Wild at the start the 2000-01 season. However, before it was all said and done, the Knights would go to do things the Jackets and the Wild (and pretty much any expansion team before it) could only dream of doing in their first NHL seasons. But more on that in a few…
Continuing with a first (of sorts), for the first time since 1994 the NHL did not participate in the Winter Olympics, with the league announcing this towards the end of the previous season. Several players vowed that they would participate anyway, however this would not come to fruition as the NHL and International Ice Hockey Federation established a blacklist prior to the season that forbid national teams from offering invitations to NHL players that were currently under contract.
The regular season began on October 4th, with the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins opening up at home against the St. Louis Blues. The Blues would upset the Pens in OT, to spoil the fun on a night Pittsburgh raised their 5th Stanley Cup banner in from of their hometown fans, and the 2017-18 NHL season was off and running.
The aforementioned Vegas Golden Knights established early on that they were not your typical expansion team, coming out of the gate with an 8-3-0 record in the season’s first month, including a 6-1-0 record at home. In fact, they were so dominant at home, that it would not be until the middle of February before they lost more than 1 home game in a month. The Knights would go on to have the strongest debut season for any expansion team in North American profession sports history, and becoming the first NHL team since the 1926-27 New York Rangers to win their division in their inaugural season, not counting the Philadelphia Flyers of the Western Division in the 1967 NHL expansion, which consisted of all expansion teams. This would be just one of many highlights in a historic season for the first year club.
As the NHL season rolled along, other highlights would include 3 outdoor games, continuing what has become both a tradition, and a big money maker for the league. The first of these (continuing the league’s yearlong celebration of the NHL’s 100th anniversary) was the NHL 100 Classic, which was held on December 16, 2017 at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa, as the Senators defeated the Montreal Canadiens 3-0. The outdoor festivities continued on New Year’s Day at the annual Winter Classic, as the New York Rangers defeated the Buffalo Sabres in overtime 3-2, on a goal by JT Miller. This game was held at Citi Field in Flushing, NY, home of the New York Mets, and despite being billed as an “away” game (for tax exempt purposes), the Rangers played to a packed house full of mostly diehard Blueshirt fans. The outdoor games concluded on March 3, 2018 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, in Annapolis, Maryland, as the hometown Washington Capitals defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-2.
In between the various outdoor games was the annual NHL All Star Game, held on January 28th, at Amalie Arena, home of the Tampa Bay Lightning. In a format established two seasons earlier of 2 separate games featuring division vs division from each conference first, eventually the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division faced the Pacific Division of the Western Conference, with the Pacific prevailing 5-2 in the final game. Rookie Forward, Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks was named All-Star Game MVP.
In series of lasts, sadly the end of an era came for 2 future Hall Of Famers, as Daniel and Henrik Sedin announced their retirement, having played their entire careers together with the Vancouver Canucks, and having mirroring careers, both playing in over 1,300 games, both amassing over 1,000 points, and both winning the Art Ross and King Clancy Trophies. Also announcing their retirements were Nashville Center, Mike Fisher, long time Chicago Blackhawk Winger, Patrick Sharp, and veteran Forward, Radam Vrbata of the Florida Panthers.
As the NHL regular season wound down, it became clear that the NHL playoffs would feature numerous teams that had not made the postseason in several seasons, and a few perennial playoff teams that would fail to qualify for the first time in many years. The New York Rangers saw their streak of 7 straight playoff seasons (and 11 out of the last 12) come to an end, as did the Chicago Blackhawks streak of 9 straight seasons, and the St. Louis Blues streak of 6. Teams returning to the playoffs included the New Jersey Devils for the first time in 5 seasons, the Colorado Avalanche for the first time in 3 seasons, and the Winnipeg Jets for first the time in 2 seasons, and of course, the Vegas Golden Knights for the first time ever. They were joined by playoff mainstays the Washington Capitals, The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the East, and the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and the Nashville Predators in the West.
It has long been said that the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in all of professional sports, and that cannot be understated. The NHL playoffs in general are the most grueling of all the 4 major sports, featuring 16 teams and four rounds of grueling 7 game series that usually takes around two months to complete. This year’s playoffs were no exception, as 4 of the 8 first round series went at least 6 games, with one of them going the full 7 games. The 2nd round was even tougher as 3 of the 4 rounds went to at least 6 games, and one going to 7. In the East, there were 3 compelling stories. The first was whether or not the Pittsburgh Penguins could become the first team since the New York Islanders in the 1980’s to win 3 consecutive Stanley Cups. The second was if Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals could finally get over the hump after many years of high expectations, and just get past the 2nd round. And the third was if the #1 seeded Tampa Bay Lightning, who were referred to as the “New York Rangers South” after having acquired JT Miller and Rangers Captain Ryan McDonagh at the trade deadline to add a team that already featured former Blueshirts defensemen, Dan Giradi, Anton Stralman, and former Captain Ryan Callahan, could fulfill their designation as the odds on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. All 3 teams answered the bell right away, winning their first round series’ against Philadelphia, Columbus and New Jersey, respectively. Boston defeated Toronto in 7 games, and the 2nd round was set.
In the West Conference, the story, of course, was the Vegas Golden Knights. The team that had shocked the world in the regular season with an expansion team record of 109 points faced off against the Los Angeles Kings in a first round match up. The Knights trumped the Kings in 4 straight, making short work of a team that 4 seasons earlier had won their 2nd Stanley Cup in 3 years. San Jose also swept the Anaheim Ducks, and powerhouses Winnipeg and Nashville prevailed in their series against the Wild and the Avalanche, setting the stage for the always grueling second round, which is probably the toughest round in the playoffs to win.
The Washington Capitals are perpetual second round losers. I mean, what else do you call a team that hadn’t gotten out of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals since 1998, when they went to the Stanley Cup Finals, and routinely lost in the middle round to both the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins (5 of the last 9 times in fact), dating back the 2008-09 playoffs?
Well, this was the year they finally got over the hump. And what better team to get over it against than the aforementioned Penguins, who had been almost as much a thorn in the Caps sides as the Rangers? It took 6 games, but Washington finally took out the defending Cup Champions, setting up an Eastern Conference Finals showdown against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who made short work of the Boston Bruins in 5 games. Out in the West, the power struggle between the top 2 point getters in the entire NHL went the full 7 games, with the Winnipeg Jets prevailing against the defending Conference Champion Nashville Predators. In the meantime, the Western Conference version of the Capitals, a.k.a. the San Jose Sharks fell to the freight train that was the Golden Knights in 6, setting up two conference finals match ups that would, at the very least, guarantee a team would win the Stanley Cup that hadn’t done so in 14 years, but making even more likely the chance that we would actually see a team that had never won before, get a chance to hoist Lord Stanley. Who would it be?
As previously mentioned, the second round of the NHL playoffs is probably the most difficult to win, but the Conference Finals is the one that gets more of the spotlight, simply because that’s the round that decides who actually gets to play for the 35.25 inch, 34.5 lb fabled chalice known as the Stanley Cup.
Out in the West, Vegas once again proved that not only do expansions rules not apply to them, but they are disregarded with relative ease. Sure the Jets gave them a wake-up call with a Game 1 victory in a packed Bell MTS Place full of Winnipeg fans all decked out in white…but after that, the Golden Knights won 4 straight games ensuring themselves a full week’s rest before they had to worry about another game.
Meanwhile over in the Eastern Conference, you had the Washington Capitals, finally getting past the second round after years of playoff letdowns, and the Tampa Bay Lightning, appearing in their third Eastern Conference Final in 4 years, also with the pressure of being the team everyone felt was the odds on favorite to win it all. Who would prevail? Well, it was my thinking that once the Capitals got past the Penguins, there was no stopping them, and I was right. But it wasn’t easy, as it took 7 games, with the Capitals shutting out the Lightning 4-0 in Tampa Bay. This set the stage for the Stanley Cup Finals, featuring 2 teams who had never won a championship before. The end result would either be a long time contender, and a hall of fame player in Ovechkin, finally fulfilling years of promise, or the biggest upset in the history of organized sports taking place.
The Stanley Cup Finals are no different than any of the other final championship rounds or games in professional sports. Like the World Series, the Super Bowl and the NBA Finals, it is often dragged down by too much advertising, ridiculous start times, and celebrity and corporate sports “fans” who either want to be “seen”, or entertain clients. It’s annoying at times, and disheartening as a true sports fan, but it is what it is. The fact remains, this is what the players have fought, scratched and clawed for all season long, and after months of hard work, this is the round where a champion will finally be crowned.
With more points than Washington in the regular season, The Vegas Golden Knights had home ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Capitals, and immediately took advantage with a 6-4 victory in Game 1, but the Caps bounced back with a 3-2 win in Game 2, as the series shifted to Washington. This was where the Capitals would put an end to the dream season for Vegas with a 3-1 victory in Game 3, and 6-2 trouncing in Game 4, setting the stage for the Capital to win the Stanley Cup back in Vegas for Game 5.
After a scoreless 1st period, Washington took the lead early in the 2nd on a goal by Jakub Varna. The Knights would tie the game shortly after on a goal by Nate Schmidt, but Washington would regain the lead on a power play goal by Alex Ovechkin. However, Vegas would not go down without a fight as they rattled off 2 consecutive goals to take a 3-2 lead into the 3rd period.
The Capitals would tie the game halfway through the third period on a goal by Devante Smith-Pelly, and less than 3 minutes later would take the lead for good on a goal by Lars Eller with 7:37 remaining. The Knights would pull goaltender Marc Andre-Fleury for the extra skater and make a final push, but it was to no avail as the Capitals hung on to win their first ever Stanley Cup, and set off a wild celebration in Sin City. Alexander Ovechkin, with 15 goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
As a long time Rangers fan, I was obviously disappointed that my team did not make the playoffs this past year…however, this was one of the more memorable NHL seasons I can recall in recent memory. From an expansion team shocking the world, to a memorable Winter Classic featuring my Rangers, to the retirement of 2 legendary players, to the fulfillment of a long time destiny by another, I already cannot wait for the 2018-19 season to start. Who knows what surprises lay ahead?