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No shortage of great storylines in 2011-12 season

Monday, 04.02.2012 / 6:34 PM / Trophy Tracker

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

The 2011-12 NHL season has included an ongoing Watch, the return of a franchise, an almost unbeatable King, and enough pink slips to prove coaching is not exactly the most secure line of work. One superstar returned to his dominating ways and a goalie with no promises at the beginning of the season now has several franchise records to call his own.
 
Oh, there's more.
 
We've narrowed the list of intriguing storylines of the season down to the 12 best; some good, some bad, all intriguing:
 
Crosby Watch
 
Love him or hate him, you were probably captivated by Sidney Crosby's saga.
 
Sidney Crosby
Center - PIT
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 26 | PTS: 31
SOG: 66 | +/-: 14
Crosby ended his nearly 11-month long absence from the game Nov. 21 with a vintage 4-point performance against the overmatched New York Islanders at Consol Energy Center. It was Welcome Back, Sid night in Pittsburgh as fans raised signs and chanted his name while the Penguins played video tributes on the jumbotron.
 
The good times lasted for eight games (five wins for Pittsburgh, 12 points for Crosby) before a series of hard hits in a Dec. 5 game against Boston put him out of the lineup again.
 
Crosby was initially supposed to miss two games. That turned into 100 days.
 
In between the collisions against the Bruins and Crosby's return March 15 at Madison Square Garden it was determined that a previously undetected soft-tissue injury in his neck could be at the root of his concussion symptoms. The news broke while the hockey world was gathered in Ottawa for All-Star Weekend, so naturally it became the biggest storyline of what was an otherwise special time in Canada's capital city.
 
Crosby received an injection in his neck to relieve the swelling, and as time went on he started to feel better and ramp up his workouts. In the meantime, the Crosby Watch returned.
 
He announced his comeback while the hockey media was gathered in Boca Raton, Fla., for the General Managers' meetings. Once again, Crosby dominated the headlines.
 
Crosby made his second celebrated return on arguably the biggest stage in sports (MSG), and had 2 assists in a 5-2 win. Crosby would have 9 assists in his first four games back and the streaking Penguins, who won nine straight games heading into Crosby's return, instantly became the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference.
 
Welcome back, Winnipeg
 


The ride is over. The Jets will not land on the playoff runway.
 
Winnipeg may be the only market that can say without hesitation that the ride was good enough. It didn't matter what the Jets did this season or when the playoff push was on in March, their 2011-12 season will never be forgotten.
 
The NHL's return to Manitoba's capital city has been a smashing success. The Jets have been playing to a 100 percent capacity at MTS Centre. All 15,004 seats have been filled at every home game with fans loud enough to actually make the building shake.
 
Winnipeg has given the fans reason to believe with one of the best home records in the NHL. The Jets' failures this season have mostly come on the road, where they have only 13 wins in 39 games heading into the final week of the season.
 
Ever since the League announced Winnipeg was getting the Jets back, the story has been nothing but positive.
 
Coaching carousel
 
A record eight teams made coaching changes this season, including one that came with a well-publicized controversy.
 
The first change occurred in early November when Ken Hitchcock took over for Davis Payne in St. Louis. Hitchcock turned the Blues into the best defensive team in the NHL.
 
The Southeast Division went through a major shakeup Nov. 28, when both Bruce Boudreau (Washington) and Paul Maurice (Carolina) were fired.
 
The Capitals plucked one of their former greats, Dale Hunter, out of his cushy job as the 11-year head coach of the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League and threw him into the fire as Boudreau's replacement. The Hurricanes said Kirk Muller's 16 games of head coaching experience in the AHL was enough to name him Maurice's replacement.
 
A few days later, Boudreau was back in the business as Randy Carlyle's replacement in Anaheim. Carlyle signed an extension over the summer, but the Ducks were eventually able to get out of that.
 
Before they did, Anaheim's struggling rival in Los Angeles decided to make a change on Dec. 12 as Terry Murray was fired and replaced on an interim basis by John Stevens. Five days later, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi convinced Darryl Sutter to move from his farm in Alberta to Los Angeles to take over on a permanent basis.
 
As Sutter was being installed in L.A., Jacques Martin was being shown the door in Montreal. Martin was fired on Dec. 17 and replaced by Randy Cunneyworth, a unilingual Anglophone who was on Martin's staff after coaching the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League last season.
 
The decision by now former Montreal general manager Pierre Gauthier to replace Martin with Cunneyworth sparked a major controversy in Quebec. The uproar was over Cunneyworth's inability to speak French.
 
Some French nationalist fringe groups were calling for a boycott of anything that had to do with the Canadiens brand, and one talking head even suggested the French-speaking media in Montreal should refuse to address Cunneyworth in English. The controversy got as far as Montreal's City Hall.
 
Regardless, Cunneyworth stayed on and did his best to appease the masses by using some of the little French he did know or had picked up. Montreal, which also relieved Pierre Gauthier of his duties as general manager last week, is likely going to finish last in the Eastern Conference, and whoever is hired as the new GM may decide to make yet another coaching change.
 
There was far less controversy in Columbus three weeks after Cunneyworth was installed in Montreal. Scott Arniel became a victim of the Blue Jackets' dismal season when he was fired and replaced on an interim basis by assistant coach Todd Richards.
 
The final coaching change of the season was a big one, as it occurred in Toronto. Looking to stop a late-season swoon, Leafs general manager Brian Burke fired his good friend Ron Wilson and brought in Carlyle, who he won the Stanley Cup with in Anaheim five years ago.
 
The Leafs kept sliding, but Carlyle has three more seasons left on his contract, ample time to get things straightened out in Toronto.
 
Malkamania
 
Evgeni Malkin
Center - PIT
GOALS: 48 | ASST: 56 | PTS: 104
SOG: 334 | +/-: 14
The race for the Hart Trophy was close for a while, with Evgeni Malkin leading by a nose over guys like Henrik Lundqvist, Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux.
 
Now it appears as if Malkin will hit the finish line first and need binoculars to see which of his challengers will come in second.
 
Although the votes from the Professional Hockey Writers' Association have not all been cast, Malkin seems like a lock to win his first Hart Trophy as the NHL's regular season MVP. He had 104 points on 48 goals and 56 assists as of Sunday night.
 
Malkin's spectacular run sparked a Malkamania craze on Twitter with Penguins' fans treating him as if he's as unstoppable as the Incredible Hulk. He has four 5-point games this season, the most of any NHL players since both Mario Lemieux and Peter Forsberg had at least four 5-point games in the 1995-96 season.
 
What's even more remarkable about Malkin's sheer domination of the NHL this season is he's doing it after spending half a year rehabbing from knee surgery he had last February.
 
Malkin's 2010-11 season was cut short after he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee. He spent the summer at home in Russia working hard to get himself ready for training camp. He was, but his knee grew sore in October and Malkin had to sit out seven of eight games from Oct. 9-22.
 
His knee has obviously been fine ever since.
 
Off the scrap heap, into the record books
 
Colorado decided to part ways with Brian Elliott after his disappointing finish last season, and the Blues signed the wayward goalie to a one-year, two-way contract with the hope that he'd be a solid veteran option to back up Jaroslav Halak if prospect Ben Bishop wasn't quite ready.
 
Bishop has since been traded to Ottawa because Elliott is setting records in St. Louis.
 
Brian Elliott
Goalie - STL
RECORD: 23-9-3
GAA: 1.48 | SVP: 0.943
Elliott would likely be getting more consideration for the Vezina Trophy had he played in more games, but he's definitely made the most of his time in the Blues' net. He either leads or is tied for first in three of the four major goaltending categories (1.48 goals-against average, .943 save percentage, nine shutouts) despite playing only 36 games this season.
 
He has set franchise records for most shutouts in a season and most consecutive shutout minutes. The latter is still active. He can set another franchise record if he picks up a shutout in his next start. It would be his fourth in a row.
 
Elliott won only two of his final 12 games with the Avalanche last season and there was some thought that his career might be in jeopardy. He'll start next season on a brand new two-year, one-way, $3.6 million contract that he has rightfully earned.
 
Blues come of age
 
St. Louis' metamorphosis into one of the NHL's best teams this season was actually the culmination of a process that had been ongoing for several years. The shrewd coaching change made by general manager Doug Armstrong early this season enabled the Blues to finally get over the proverbial hump.
 
Armstrong turned to Hitchcock 13 games into the season after it became apparent to him that Payne wasn't going to get the Blues to reach their full potential. Hitchcock brought his renowned defensive system to the Gateway City and the players bought in like they were guaranteed to win Mega Millions.
 
The Blues have become one of the hardest teams to play against, and certainly the hardest team to score against. They are on pace to set the NHL record for fewest goals allowed in an 82-game season and they've already tied a modern-era record (1967-68 to the present) for the most shutouts in a single season with 15.
 
Elliott and Halak have been the best goaltending tandem in the League while David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, David Perron and Patrik Berglund have led the way offensively.
 
The Blues don't have anyone with 30 goals or even 60 points, but they have the required balance to get enough offense out of Hitchcock's defensive-oriented system.
 
Backes, a second-round pick by the Blues in 2003, is the oldest among the Blues' top skaters at 27. Oshie, Pietrangelo, Perron, Berglund, Ian Cole, and Jaden Schwartz were all selected by St. Louis in the first-round of the NHL Draft over the past seven years.
 
St. Louis did not have a first-round pick last year because they traded it to Colorado to get Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart, a pair of former first-round picks themselves.
 
When John Davidson left the broadcast booth to become the president of the Blues in 2006 he promised the team was going to rebuild the right way to build a winner in St. Louis. The playoffs haven't started yet, but the Blues have finally matched the vision Davidson had for them.
 
King Henrik
 
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist got married over the summer. He returned to his old home in Gothenburg, Sweden, to play an exhibition game against his old team, the Frolunda Indians, who are captained by his twin brother Joel. Lundqvist then played two games in front of more adoring fans in Stockholm.
 
Henrik Lundqvist
Goalie - NYR
RECORD: 38-17-5
GAA: 1.92 | SVP: 0.932
He returned to New York, settled into a groove, became a star on HBO's "24/7" series, won the Winter Classic with 34 saves (including a penalty-shot stop on Danny Briere with 20 seconds left in regulation), played in the All-Star Game, announced he was going to be a dad, celebrated his 30th birthday, and is driving the Rangers into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
 
Oh, and he was also featured on HBO's critically acclaimed "Real Sports" with host Bryant Gumbel.
 
Along the way Lundqvist became the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy and a candidate for the Hart Trophy. He has consistently been among the top goalies in the four major categories -- wins, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts. He's the main reason the Rangers have consistently been among the top teams in the NHL this season.
 
The playoffs are where Lundqvist still has to make his name, as he's never gotten the Rangers past the second round, but between the end of last season and right now there is not another goalie -- perhaps in the world -- who has experienced as much as the king of New York.
 
Bruvember
 
The proverbial Stanley Cup hangover spread through the Bruins dressing room like a disease in October as the defending champs won only three of 10 games. The horror show ended soon after Halloween.
 
The Bruins turned Movember into Bruvember with a near perfect month of hockey. They went 12-0-1, with the lone one-point blemish coming in a shootout loss to Detroit the day after U.S. Thanksgiving. They scored 34 goals in their first six games and finished the month with 57 goals while allowing only 24 in 13 games.
 
Tim Thomas went 9-0 with three shutouts and a 1.76 goals-against-average to earn the NHL's First Star of the Month honors. Tyler Seguin, Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand all had 14 points apiece in November. David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron each had 12, and Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic had 11 apiece.
 
Boston went from last in the Eastern Conference on Nov. 1 to second on Dec. 1.
 
The run continued in December, when the Bruins won nine of 13 games.
 
Toronto's tailspin
 
The Maple Leafs were in a playoff position in mid-February, but they were already starting to collapse. A promising season was beginning to spiral out of control with 10 losses sandwiched around a shootout win in Edmonton from Feb. 7-29.
 
March dawned, and while the Leafs were slumping they still weren't out of it. They were four points out in 10th place, but it seemed like they were just a small winning streak away from making up that ground considering none of the other teams in the race had shown much in the way of consistency.
 
But the Leafs never got it going. Two days after the fans chanted for Wilson to be fired during a home loss to Florida on Feb. 28, he was sent packing and replaced by Carlyle.
 
The hope was that somehow, someway Carlyle could turn the defensive woes around and get the Leafs back in contention.
 
It never happened.
 
A year ago, the Leafs went 17-7-5 between February and March to play their way into the race. They fell short and finished eight points out in 10th place.
 
This season, the Leafs went 9-17-3 between February and March to play their way out of the race. They will miss the playoffs for the seventh straight season.
 
Playoff-bound Panthers
 
Florida hasn't been to the postseason since 2000. It hasn't won a playoff game since 1997. It hasn't won a playoff round since 1996.
 
The Panthers are on pace to have an opportunity to change all of that. They are a few points away from winning the Southeast Division title for the first time in franchise history to end the longest playoff drought in the NHL.
 
Florida's road to the postseason started in the offseason when general manager Dale Tallon had to spend close to $30 million just to reach the salary cap floor of $48.3 million.
 
With an open purse, Tallon started by pursuing players he knew from his previous role as the GM in Chicago. He traded for former Blackhawks Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Kris Versteeg. Tallon re-signed Kopecky to a four-year contract shortly after acquiring his rights from Chicago.
 
On the first day of free agency, Tallon made the biggest splash of any GM by signing Scottie Upshall, Jose Theodore, ex-Panther Ed Jovanovski, Marcel Goc, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim and Matt Bradley.
 
Later in July, Tallon signed 2010 first-round draft pick Erik Gudbranson to an entry-level contract. After the season started he signed John Madden and traded for Mikael Samuelsson, Marco Sturm, Krystofer Barch and Wojtek Wolski.
 
Along with some select holdovers, including Stephen Weiss, Jason Garrison and Dmitry Kulikov, the Panthers have meshed together better than any preseason prognosticator expected under first-year coach Kevin Dineen, who came to Florida with no NHL head coaching experience but has to be on the short list of candidates for the Jack Adams Award.
 
Ottawa's revival
 
Back in October, would anyone have been surprised if All-Star Weekend wound up being the biggest hockey story in Ottawa this season?
 
The fair answer would be no, but the Senators had other ideas.
 
Erik Karlsson
Defense - OTT
GOALS: 19 | ASST: 58 | PTS: 77
SOG: 249 | +/-: 18
Erik Karlsson and Co. turned All-Star Weekend into just another positive in a season full of them in Canada's capital city. Ottawa, picked by many so-called experts to finish 14th or 15th in the Eastern Conference, is heading to the playoffs, likely as the No. 7 seed, thanks to the resurgence of their veteran talent and the emergence of their young talent.
 
Ottawa has a top-five offense and top-10 power play in the League. Karlsson is the likely leading candidate for the Norris Trophy because his defensive game has come around and he's going to finish as the runaway leader in points among blueliners this season. First-year coach Paul MacLean deserves to join Dineen, Hitchcock and John Tortorella on the short list of candidates for the Jack Adams Award.
 
Jason Spezza is back to being a point-per-game player after two straight subpar seasons by his standards. Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar have shown they're not too old to be contributing to a contending team. Milan Michalek has more than 30 goals for the first time in his career and Nick Foligno is beginning to reach his potential after four building seasons.
 
However, the Senators wouldn't be in the playoffs if not for their young talent, including several players that won the Calder Cup last season with the Binghamton Senators. Colin Greening, Erik Condra, Bobby Butler, Jared Cowen, Zack Smith and Kaspars Daugavins have provided the depth that the Senators have lacked in recent years.
 
Midseason acquisition Kyle Turris has played a big role in the Senators' unexpected surge to the postseason.
 
Wild West
 

2011-2012 Standings

Western Conference
GP
P
ROW
1
79
107
42
2
79
106
44
3
79
91
33
4
79
99
39
5
79
98
41
6
80
98
38
7
79
91
33
8
79
90
32
9
79
89
35
10
80
88
32
ROW = total number of regulation plus overtime wins. For tie-breaking purposes, wins obtained in a shootout are not counted. For full standings tiebreakers, click here.
04/02/12 6:40PM
It's coming down to the wire, and anywhere between one and three Pacific Division teams will qualify for the postseason. None of them have yet, and if that doesn't speak to parity what does?
 
The Kings, Coyotes, Sharks and Stars entered the final week of the season separated by a mere two points with three games remaining each. The first-place Kings were set to play Monday against Edmonton.
 
All four have been in first place in the division since March 1. San Jose, Dallas and Los Angeles have all been in first place since last Wednesday.
 
The Kings have the lead now, but only because they have an 8-7 edge in points over the Coyotes in the season series. The Kings and Coyotes each had 91 points and 33 non-shootout wins in 79 games prior to L.A.'s game against the Oilers.
 
San Jose and Dallas are right there, too. The Sharks have 90 points while the Stars have 89.
 
With the Central Division sending four teams and Vancouver coming out of the Northwest, at least one of the four Pacific teams will have the playoff door slammed into their faces. Colorado and Calgary are mathematically alive as well.
 
It is possible that the division title doesn't get decided until the final game of the regular season (No. 1,230) is played between the Kings and Sharks in San Jose. They also play Thursday in Los Angeles.
 
Wild indeed.
 
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl

I didn't think it would actually work, but it ended up working, so I'm thanking my lucky stars tonight.

— Columbus forward Nick Foligno on scoring the overtime goal after telling the Blue Jackets in the locker room that he would win the game