With more games than any previous decade -- and more ways for fans to enjoy them -- the first decade of the new century is leaving us with a host of moments that will stay etched in our memories.
It's hard to whittle down the dozens of thrills from the soon-to-be-concluded decade, but here's a look at 10 moments that helped define the 2000s:
* Oct. 5, 2005: The "new" NHL debuts -- Following the work stoppage that wiped out the 2004-05 season, the NHL made its return for 2005-06 by having all 30 teams start on the same night. The fans who turned out from coast to coast saw a game that was faster and more skilled than ever. With the debut of new faces like Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby accenting the renewed emphasis on speed and skill, the "new" NHL was an immediate hit. If there were any doubts that things were different, they were wiped out by a single game: Los Angeles grabbed a 4-0 lead at Dallas, only to see the Stars rally for a 5-4 win -- the kind of big rally that had almost ceased to exist.
"From an entertainment factor, we held up our end tonight," Stars coach Dave Tippett said after his team's comeback.
With new stars and more scoring, the NHL had unquestionably entered a new era.
"When you see 70,000 people jammed into a stadium to watch hockey, it's a good sign," Crosby said after his goal. "The atmosphere and environment, I don't think you can beat that."
The Winter Classic is becoming an institution -- but for the sheer novelty, there will never be anything like the first one.
* May 4, 2009: Dueling hat tricks -- The NHL has always thrived on rivalries, and the one between Sidney Crosby of the Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals shows every sign of being the equal of Howe-Richard or Gretzky-Lemieux. They made their NHL debuts on the same night (Oct. 5, 2005) and quickly lifted their teams from also-rans into the NHL's elite. Both have won scoring championships and MVP awards. But their showdown in the second round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs was the rivalry's biggest moment (so far). They matched hat tricks in Game 2, with Ovechkin bringing down the house at the Verizon Center by scoring the game-winner in Washington's 4-3 victory.
"It's good for the fans to see great players play against each other and two great teams play against each other," Ovechkin said. "It's an interesting time and an interesting game. It's unbelievable when you play against great players and you win a game like this."
Both players finished the series with 8 goals, but Crosby had the last laugh, leading the Penguins to victory in Game 7 -- and ultimately to the Stanley Cup. With neither player having reached his 25th birthday, this figures to be the defining rivalry of the next decade as well.
* Dec. 27, 2000: Lemieux returns -- Mario Lemieux stepped away from terrorizing goaltenders after the 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with back problems and Hodgkin's disease shutting him down in a way opponents never could. He was quickly inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and moved into the owner's chair in Pittsburgh, but the itch to play never went away.
He began to work out again in the fall of 2000, and after a 3 1/2-year hiatus, Lemieux donned his famous No. 66 again for the Penguins on Dec. 27, 2000. With a full house at the Mellon Arena and national TV audiences in Canada and the United States looking on, Lemieux quickly showed he had lost none of his skills: He set up a goal by Jaromir Jagr 33 seconds into the game and finished with a goal and a pair of assists in Pittsburgh's 5-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"It was a great feeling when I stepped back on the ice," said Lemieux, who finished with 76 points in only 43 games and finally retired for good in 2005-06. "It was a great moment, and a moment I will cherish.''
With Wayne Gretzky on the opposing bench, Ovechkin scored a fluke goal in the first period, saw his teammates put the game away with four goals in the second, then scored a goal for the ages midway through the third period. Despite being flattened by defenseman Paul Mara, he swatted the puck past goaltender Brian Boucher and into the net while sprawled on the ice, sliding toward the corner and rolling from his back to his chest.
"The best goal I ever scored," Ovechkin said of a goal that quickly became a YouTube legend. "I just went down and shot."
* June 9, 2001: Bourque goes out a champion -- Ray Bourque spent 20 seasons in Boston doing everything but winning a Stanley Cup. He was dealt to Colorado at the trade deadline in 2000 and got his chance a year later when the Avalanche advanced to the Stanley Cup Final against the defending champion New Jersey Devils.
His hopes for a Cup appeared doomed when New Jersey grabbed a 3-2 series lead by winning Game 5 in Colorado. But the Avs regrouped and beat the Devils in Game 6, 4-0, then captured the second championship in franchise history by beating New Jersey 3-1.
As the final seconds counted down, the tears began to flow.
"I couldn't breathe," he remembered. "It was just too much to take. I was trying to hold off the tears and contain my emotions."
Captain Joe Sakic took the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman and immediately handed it to Bourque, who was given the honor of being the first player to skate with it.
"I told him on the ice that as soon as I got it, I was going to pass it over to him," Sakic said afterward. "He's the one that deserved to lift it up first."
Bourque retired not long afterward -- as a champion.
With a full house of more than 40,000 filling the "Friendly Confines," it was a scenario unlike any that hockey fans had ever seen. The teams wore retro uniforms, and Wings coach Mike Babcock sported a fedora that would have been right at home in the era when Jack Adams patrolled the Wings bench.
The game more than lived up to the hype, as the Wings rallied from an early 3-1 deficit for a 6-4 victory -- one that Babcock said will live in a lot of memories.
"You want to win this game," he said, "because 10 years from now when they ask you who won the Winter Classic, you get to say, 'We did.'"
* March 17, 2009: Passing Patrick -- On March 14, Martin Brodeur tied boyhood idol Patrick Roy's record for regular-season victories by beating the team he grew up watching, the Montreal Canadiens, at the Bell Centre -- with Roy on hand and the sellout crowd chanting his name as the final buzzer sounded after win No. 551. Three nights later, Brodeur passed Roy in front of a sellout home crowd at the Prudential Center. The New Jersey Devils gave him a three-goal lead, and it proved to be enough to hold off the Chicago Blackhawks, who made it 3-2 with 2:03 left, but couldn't get the equalizer.
Brodeur cut the netting off the goal and took a victory lap amid chants of "Mar-tee."
"With 10 minutes left, I thought, 'All right, this is finally going to happen,"' said Brodeur, who figures to put the record well over 600 wins before he retires. "I was a clockwatcher, a little bit. When 2 minutes came and they scored, I said, 'I've got 2 more minutes to kill.' It made it tough in the last few minutes, but we got it done."
There wasn't much offense in Game 6, either. New Jersey's Scott Niedermayer and Dallas' Mike Keane scored 69 seconds apart in the second period, and the goaltending battle between Martin Brodeur and the Stars' Ed Belfour continued well into the night, carrying through the 60 minutes of regulation and the first overtime period.
It seemed like the game could go on forever -- and then it was over. Patrik Elias put a backhand pass across the slot to Jason Arnott, who was all alone and beat Belfour cleanly. In an instant, the Devils were happy -- if weary -- champions.
"This is unbelievable," said Devils captain Scott Stevens, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. "It's a dream come true for our team."
* Dec. 31-Jan. 11, 2004: Mr. Zero -- Brian Boucher began the 2003-04 season as the Phoenix Coyotes' third-string goaltender. Three months later, he owned the longest shutout streak in modern NHL history.
Boucher started against Los Angeles on New Year's Eve and shut out the Kings, 4-0. He blanked Dallas (6-0), Carolina (3-0) and Washington (3-0) in the next week for four-consecutive shutouts, then shut out the Wild 2-0 on Jan. 11 for his fifth shutout in a row, breaking the modern record for longest shutout streak of 309:21 set by Montreal's Bill Durnan in 1949. Durnan had also held the record of four-consecutive shutouts.
Boucher, who had only one victory before starting the streak, passed Durnan's scoreless streak during the third period and admitted afterward that, "I did look up at the clock. Once I saw it was, I think, four minutes into the third, I knew I could breathe easy as far as the streak is concerned."
The streak ended 6:16 into the Coyotes' next game against Atlanta when Randy Robitaille's shot deflected off Phoenix defenseman David Tanabe and into the net.
"I'm happy that it's over," Boucher said after the 1-1 tie. "It was a nice run, something that I'll never forget. I think it's good for the team that we don't have to answer questions about it anymore."