The 2012/13 NHL season was destined for weirdness from the moment it almost didn’t happen. At the end of the 2011/12 season, which saw the Los Angeles Kings win their first ever Stanley Cup against the New Jersey Devils, the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) and the league’s owners couldn’t come to bargaining agreements. Fans were put through months of agonizing waiting, wondering “Will they play? Won’t they play?” Until it appeared that just about all hope was lost. However, one faithful December night, they learned that their season would start in January, in a season nearly cut in half. It might be a strange season, but they would have their hockey.
The weird and the unusual began almost immediately, when the Chicago Blackhawks put a beat down on the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings in their banner-raising, home-opener by a final score of 5-2. From there, the Blackhawks went on a 6 game win streak, where they dropped two consecutive shoot outs to the Minnesota Wild and the Vancouver Canucks. With a 6-0-2 record, things seemed pretty normal, but then the NHL watched in amazement as Chicago went on a 16 game unbeaten streak, bringing their overall record to 21-0-3. They finally lost to the Colorado Avalanche by a score of 6-2 on March 8, nearly two months into the season. From there, Chicago hasn’t looked back, and they currently hold the top spot in the Western Conference by nearly 10 points. With just three games left to go in the season, they will certainly be sitting on top come playoff time in Chicago.
The next curveball to throw off everything we knew about hockey this year comes from a Russian in Columbus, Sergei Bobrovsky. The 24-year-old goaltender was traded from Philadelphia over the off-season, and has done nothing but put up incredible numbers since. In his last season with the Flyers, he was an impressive 14-10, with a somewhat average save percentage of .899 and a less-than-impressive goals against average (GAA) of 3.02. However, this season with the Blue Jackets, he has greatly stepped up his game, and has helped Columbus hold the 8 spot in the West that they have today, just keeping them alive for playoff hopes. He has improved his percentage to an amazing .930, and even more impressing is his 2.06 GAA, nearly a whole goal per game less than last season.
The subject of misfortune in Philadelphia brings the next biggest surprise of the 2012/13 season: the 12th Philadelphia Flyers. After last season’s first round playoff beat-down of the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, fans surely had high hopes for their Broad Street Bullies this season. However, the Flyers did not win more than two consecutive games this season until March, and with their mere 43 points just days before the regular season ends, they will be missing the playoffs for just the ninth time in franchise history (36 out of 45 seasons.) The Flyers currently hold a record of 20-22-3 and have dropped seven in the conference, finishing 5th last season with an impressive 103 points. With the nagging injuries of several key players such as lead defenseman Chris Pronger and early season injuries from players like Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere, the Flyers truly are a victim of the NHL Lockout. A team that dominated in many games last year who simply couldn’t get it going this season.
The fourth surprise comes from New York, but not the Rangers. The New York Islanders currently sit in 6th place in the Eastern Conference, and will be making the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since the 2006/07 season. They currently are on a seven game winning streak, and are 8-0-2 in their last ten games. One of the most dangerous things in the NHL is a team going into the playoffs on a streak, and it certainly appears that the Islanders are doing that. Despite the fact that they started their season with some big questions, in both skill and will, the Islanders have obviously turned around their recent history and have a legitimate shot of not only making the playoffs, but making a second or third round push in the playoffs.
As impressive as the New York Islanders may sound, with arguably their first legitimate playoff push since the late-80s or mid-90s, the team that sits just above them in the Eastern Conference is the most shocking thing to happen to the NHL this season. This is a team that has not made the playoffs since 2004. This is a team that has never played a playoff game that was viewed on a high-definition television. This is a team whose last playoff appearance may have been posted about on Facebook, when it was first founded. This is a team who probably played Usher’s hit “Yeah” at its home games, because that was the number one song in America at the time. This team of course is the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they hold the 5th seed, with 55 points. Last season, they finished in their usual spot, 13th in the Eastern Conference, fifth to last in the NHL. With a solid net-minder in James Reimer, who has put up a 2.41 GAA, and offensive machines like Phil Kessel and Nasem Kadie, who have put up 48 and 42 points, respectively, it looks like Toronto too is looking to make a deep push towards the Stanley Cup.
In this shortened season, which we weren’t even positive would be played at all, it appears as though there might just be a new team on top of the Eastern Conference. Obviously the Islanders and the Maple Leafs will have to withstand the test of playing dominating teams like Pittsburgh to eventually get to the Stanley Cup. The fact of the matter is that nothing is set in stone in hockey come playoff time. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be seeing a weird Stanley Cup final in 2013.
By Nick Carson