Six months of nightly tension, during which each point was precious, came to an end this afternoon. They set the stage for the two months that begin Wednesday night -- the unparalleled test of character, courage and endurance that is the NHL playoffs.
In the meantime, a look back at the memorable moments, historic achievements and record-setting performances of the 2008-09 season and a glimpse ahead to the quest for the most coveted trophy in sports that begins this week:
Sharks capture first Presidents' Trophy: Set up by a 22-3-1 start, the San Jose Sharks went wire-to-wire in the Western Conference and outdueled Eastern Conference-leading Boston to finish with the NHL's best record for the first time in franchise history.
Divisional dominance: San Jose (Pacific), Detroit (Central) and Washington (Southeast) repeated as division champs. New Jersey won the Atlantic for the third time in four seasons. Boston made it four different Northeast champs in as many seasons. Vancouver has won the Northwest every other season since 2003-04.
Thorough turnover: Half of the 2009 Western Conference playoff pool will be populated by teams that didn't qualify for the 2007 postseason -- Vancouver, Chicago, Columbus and St. Louis. A year ago, the Eastern Conference experienced the same percentage turnover.
In fact, of the League's 30 teams, 26 have qualified for the playoffs since the NHL's new economic system was instituted four seasons ago. Playoff success has been similarly unpredictable: Over the past four seasons, 12 different teams have appeared in the Conference Finals.
Winner above all: On Mar. 17 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur beat the Chicago Blackhawks to earn his 552nd career regular-season victory, the most in NHL history. Three nights before in his hometown of Montreal, Brodeur had tied his boyhood idol, Patrick Roy, by earning his 551st victory. Brodeur ended the season with 557 victories -- 101 by shutout, leaving him two shy of tying Terry Sawchuk for the NHL's all-time shutouts record.
Malkin is eighth in eight: With 113 points (35 goals, 78 assists in 82 games) Pittsburgh C Evgeni Malkin became the eighth player in the past eight seasons to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer. Since Jaromir Jagr repeated as scoring champ in 2001, the Ross Trophy has gone to: Jarome Iginla in 2002, Peter Forsberg in 2003, Martin St. Louis in 2004, Joe Thornton in 2006, Sidney Crosby in 2007 and Alex Ovechkin in 2008.
Ovechkin 'Rockets' back-to-back: Washington Capitals LW Alex Ovechkin scored 56 goals to become the first NHL goal-scoring leader in consecutive seasons since Pavel Bure in 2000 and 2001. Ovechkin left the competition far behind in capturing his second straight Maurice Richard Trophy -- Philadelphia's Jeff Carter finished second with 46 goals, New Jersey's Zach Parise was third with 45.
Ovechkin became the Capitals' first three-time 50-goal scorer and joined Anaheim's Teemu Selanne as the only active NHL player with three 50-goal seasons. Ovechkin also became just the third player in NHL history to post three 50-goal seasons in his first four years in the NHL, matching the feat of Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky.
Puck-stopping prowess: Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff led all NHL goaltenders with 45 victories and 76 games played. Henrik Lundqvist of the NY Rangers became the first goaltender in NHL history to begin his career with four straight 30-win seasons.
Joining the rush: With 31 goals in only 68 games, Washington's Mike Green became the first NHL defenseman to reach the 30-goal mark since another Capital, Kevin Hatcher, scored 34 goals in 1992-93. Green also set an NHL record for defensemen by scoring a goal in eight consecutive games from Jan. 27 to Feb. 14, breaking the 25-year-old mark set by Boston's Mike O'Connell.
Hat tricks: Carolina C Eric Staal recorded a League-high four hat tricks this season, including one of the three four-goal games (Mar. 7 at Tampa Bay). David Backes of St. Louis (Apr. 2 at Detroit) and New Jersey's Dainius Zubrus (Nov. 23 at Tampa Bay) had the other four-goal games. Washington's Alex Ovechkin (three) was the only player other than Staal to record more than two hat tricks.
Ready, fire, aim: Washington LW Alex Ovechkin uncorked 528 shots on goal, the second-highest single-season total in League history behind Phil Esposito's 550 in 1970-71 -- no other player has recorded 500 shots in a season. Ovechkin had 156 shots more this season than his closest competitor, Carolina's Eric Staal.
The one-club club: New Jersey's Martin Brodeur completed his 16th NHL season by appearing in his 999th career game -- both are League records for a goaltender who has played exclusively for one team. Dallas C Mike Modano played in his 1,400th game Apr. 10, the third-highest total for a player who has played his entire career for one franchise. Colorado C Joe Sakic (1,378) and Detroit D Nicklas Lidstrom (1,330) rank fourth and sixth, respectively, on the games-played-for-one-club list.
Still going strong: Detroit D Chris Chelios appeared in his 1,640th career game Mar. 29 against Nashville, passing Dave Andreychuk (1,639) into fourth place on the all-time games played list. Chelios ended the season having played in 1,644 games, which trails only Gordie Howe (1,767), Mark Messier (1,756) and Ron Francis (1,731).
American Beauties: St. Louis C Keith Tkachuk (1,033) and the NY Islanders' Doug Weight (1,006) became the seventh and eighth U.S.-born players in history to score 1,000 points in the NHL.
Flames on fire: RW Jarome Iginla surpassed Theo Fleury to become Calgary's all-time scoring leader with 851 career points. Flames coach Mike Keenan passed Pat Quinn twice to move into fourth place on the NHL's all-time coaching victories (630) and games coached (1,386) lists.
400 Goals: Calgary RW Jarome Iginla (409), Pittsburgh RW Bill Guerin (408) and Minnesota RW Owen Nolan (406) all joined the 400-goal club this season.
1,000 Games: New Jersey's Brian Rolston (1,041), Colorado's Adam Foote (1,040), Anaheim's Bret Hedican (1,039) and Todd Marchant (1,038), Nashville's Jason Arnott (1,036), Detroit's Kris Draper (1,029), Anaheim's Chris Pronger (1,022), Detroit's Kirk Maltby (1,020), Los Angeles' Sean O'Donnell (1,014), Pittsburgh's Miroslav Satan (1,012), Anaheim's Rob Niedermayer (1,011), Montreal's Patrice Brisebois (1,009), Ottawa's Jason Smith (1,008), Toronto's Brad May (1,001) and Colorado's Ian Laperriere
(1,001) all played in their 1,000th NHL games this season.
Overall goal-scoring was up 5 percent over 2007-08 and 13 percent since 2003-04, the last season before two-line passes were permitted and enforcement of rules against obstruction was emphasized. Shots on goal averaged more than 60 per game, up 4 percent over last season and 8 percent over 2003-04. And 4,992 even-strength goals were scored, a 6 percent increase from last season and 15 percent up from 2003-04.
The San Jose Sharks' 117 points were a franchise record. They've posted franchise-record point totals for three consecutive seasons -- 107 in 2006-07, 108 in 2007-08. The Washington Capitals' 108 points and the Columbus Blue Jackets' 92 points also were franchise records.
The Boston Bruins' 116 points are their highest total since 119 in 1971-72, their last Stanley Cup season. The Chicago Blackhawks' 104 points are their highest total since 1992-93.
Welcome to the Playoffs: The Columbus Blue Jackets are making their first playoff appearance in the franchise's eight-season history. Here is how the other 29 current clubs fared in their initial playoffs:
Atlanta 2007 Lost Conf. QF
Nashville 2004 Lost Conf. QF
Minnesota 2003 Lost Conf. Final
Anaheim 1997 Lost Conf. SF
Ottawa 1997 Lost Conf. QF
Florida 1996 Lost Final
Tampa Bay 1996 Lost Conf. QF
San Jose 1994 Lost Conf. SF
Washington 1983 Lost Div. SF
Phoenix 1982 Lost Div. SF
Colorado 1981 Lost Prelim
Carolina 1980 Lost Prelim
Edmonton 1980 Lost Prelim
New Jersey 1978 Lost Prelim
NY Islanders 1975 Lost SF
Vancouver 1975 Lost QF
Calgary 1974 Lost QF
Buffalo 1973 Lost QF
Pittsburgh 1970 Lost SF
Dallas 1968 Lost SF
Los Angeles 1968 Lost QF
Philadelphia 1968 Lost QF
St. Louis 1968 Lost Final
Detroit 1929 Lost QF
Boston 1927 Lost Final
Chicago 1927 Lost QF
NY Rangers 1927 Lost QF
Montreal 1918 Lost NHL Final
Toronto 1918 Won Stanley Cup
Third club a Recchi charm? A total of 1,134 players have skated for Stanley Cup championship teams since the trophy first was awarded in 1893. Only nine of those players have skated for three different champions in that time; this year, Boston's Mark Recchi, who won with Pittsburgh in 1991 and Carolina in 2006, attempts to become the 10th.
Can Lemieux go fourth? Jack Marshall owns the record for playing with four different teams to win the Stanley Cup. San Jose's Claude Lemieux, who won with Montreal in 1986, New Jersey in 1995 and 2000 and Colorado in 1996, looks to double the group in size.
Been there, done that: The scorers of the past seven Stanley Cup-winning goals will be action when the Conference Quarter-finals begin -- Montreal's Alex Tanguay (with Colorado, 2001), New Jersey's Brendan Shanahan (Detroit, 2002), New Jersey's Mike Rupp (2003), Pittsburgh's Ruslan Fedotenko (Tampa Bay, 2004), Carolina's Frantisek Kaberle (2006), Anaheim's Travis Moen (2007) and Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg (2008).
Enough waiting: No player has waited longer than Calgary's Olli Jokinen (799 career games) to make his playoff debut.
Second chances: Coach Paul Maurice and winger Erik Cole are in their second tours with Carolina; Bobby Holik, Brian Rolston and Brendan Shanahan are in their second tours with New Jersey; Mathieu Schneider is in his second tour with Montreal; Sean Avery is in his second tour with the Rangers; Jordan Leopold is in his second tour with the Flames.
Change is good: The coaches of five playoff teams assumed their positions during the season: Joel Quenneville in Chicago, John Tortorella in New York, Bob Gainey in Montreal, Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh, Paul Maurice in Carolina.