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Year in Review: Moments that defined hockey in 2011

by Dave Lozo
Let's call 2011 the year of Tim Thomas.

From Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, no one had a more memorable, highlight-filled 365 days than the Boston Bruins goaltender, who won nearly every trophy a goalie can win.

But as we look back on 2011, there were plenty of events that didn't involve Thomas that thrilled fans. There was also some sad news that shook up many, along with a couple of incidents that will leave fans laughing for years.

After much reflection, these are who we considered the 24 biggest events, plays, occurrences and stories from 2011.

24. A stanchion helps Vancouver to the Stanley Cup Final (May 24)

The primary assist on Kevin Bieksa's winning goal was credited to Alexander Edler, but an inanimate object had the biggest hand in sending the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1994.

The Canucks and Sharks were tied at 2-2 in the second overtime of Game 5 of the Western Conference Final with Vancouver leading the series 3-1. Edler tried to play the puck down the right-wing boards, but fate had a different plan. The puck ricocheted off a stanchion and caromed across to Bieksa. While Sharks and Canucks players alike searched for the puck behind the cage or up in the netting, Bieksa one-timed a knuckling shot past an unsuspecting Antti Niemi to blow the roof off Rogers Arena.

"I just one-timed it on net and not many people knew where it was," Bieksa said. "It was just a knuckleball. I barely got enough on it to put it on net. It was a hard puck to shoot. It was probably the ugliest goal of my career, but the biggest."

23. Rangers, Blackhawks make playoffs with Game 82 (April 9-10)

In an effort to avoid missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a second-straight season, the Rangers needed a lot to go right on that final Saturday of the season. It all did. The Rangers rallied to beat the Devils 5-2, then watched as the Lightning blew out the Hurricanes in Carolina, 6-2.

"Watching that game next to Henrik (Lundqvist) was pretty intense," said Rangers captain Chris Drury, who gathered with teammates to watch Saturday night's game.  "It was a long day, but we're excited."

The Blackhawks had an equally gut-wrenching situation the following day. They lost at home during the day to the Detroit Red Wings, leaving them on the outside until the Minnesota Wild did the Blackhawks a favor that night, beating Dallas and knocking the Stars out of the No. 8 spot.

22. Paul Holmgren blows up his roster (June 23)

One year removed from a Stanley Cup Final trip and two months after a 106-point season, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren did what many considered unthinkable. He traded Mike Richards to the Los Angeles Kings and Jeff Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets and received Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek and draft picks in return.

But Holmgren didn’t stop there.

Those deals freed enough money to sign goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract. A little more than a week later after those moves, Holmgren also decided to let Ville Leino leave via free agency and instead signed Jaromir Jagr, the future Hall of Famer who had spent the previous three years playing in Russia.

21. Tim Thomas races Cam Ward at the All-Star Game (Jan. 29)

In an effort to get the goaltenders more involved at the All-Star Game skills competition, the League instituted a goalie race.

Boston's Thomas was game -- even if the opponent was Carolina's Cam Ward, who was performing in front of his home fans in Raleigh. In full gear, each would take one full lap around the ice in an effort to earn the title of NHL's fastest goalie.

Thomas came out on the losing end of something in 2011 for one of the few times, wiping out in the first turn.

"That's OK," Thomas said. "The hometown boy won, but I think everyone knows who the fastest skater was."

20. Craig Smith misses an empty net from the top of the crease (Nov. 17)

By all accounts, Predators rookie Craig Smith is having a terrific first season in the NHL. But no matter what he does, at least for now, he'll be known for a goal he didn't score.

With the Preds up two goals on the Maple Leafs in the dying seconds, Smith found himself all alone in front of an empty net with the puck. Instead of tapping it home and sealing a three-goal victory, he tried to roof the shot into the top part of the net.

He missed; not only the net, but the glass behind it.

19. Corey Perry's push for the Hart Trophy (Feb. 5 - April 9)

It's not as though Perry was having a miserable season before his hat trick against Colorado on Feb. 5. At that point, Perry had 25 goals and 28 assists in 53 games, putting him on pace for his first point-per-game season.

But Perry's explosion during the Ducks' final 29 games -- 25 goals and 20 assists -- took him to elite status. During the stretch, the Ducks went 19-9-1 run, despite  playing almost all of those games without starting goaltender Jonas Hiller, who was battling vertigo.

18. New ownership takes the reins in Buffalo, Dallas (Feb. 18, Nov. 18)

The strongest connection between the Stars and Sabres is their six-game Stanley Cup Final won by the Stars in 1999. But 12 years later, both franchises picked up new owners nine months apart.

Terry Pegula bought the Sabres, the team for which he grew up cheering. He immediately invested money in the team, acquiring Brad Boyes from the Blues for a draft pick. During the summer, the Sabres were very active in free agency, signing Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino to big-ticket contracts.

"Starting today" Pegula said at his introductory press conference, "the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup."

In Dallas, the purchase of the team by Tom Gaglardi put to fears of the team leaving to rest. The president of Northland Properties Corporation has strong family ties to Texas.

"Yeah, it is nice to have that stability," Stars captain Brenden Morrow said. "We look forward to it."

17. Manny Malhotra returns from an eye injury in the Stanley Cup Final (June 4)

An unlucky bounce at the end of the regular season put the career of Canucks center Manny Malhotra in doubt. A puck hit him in his left eye, sidelining him for the rest of the regular season and the first three rounds of the postseason.

Despite doubts, Malhotra returned for Game 2 of the Final, which the Canucks won 3-2 in overtime. Malhotra played just 7:26, which was almost as long as the fans at Rogers Arena cheered him during warmups and his first shift.

"The nerves kept getting to me," Malhotra said. "I was telling the guys, right from warmup, it was kind of sensory overload, just the noise, the crowd into it, all the towels waving."

16. Phil Kessel at the All-Star Game (Jan. 28)

Phil Kessel
Right Wing - TOR
GOALS: 20 | ASST: 23 | PTS: 43
SOG: 134 | +/-: 1
The All-Star Game's new format meant someone had to be picked last.

In Raleigh, that player was Toronto's Phil Kessel.

It came down to Kessel and Colorado's Paul Stastny with Eric Staal selecting Stastny. It wasn't all bad for Kessel. For being picked last, he was awarded a car and a $20,000 donation he made to a cancer charity.

"I really didn't care. I was just having fun with it," Kessel said. "When I was a kid, I never dreamed of being here."

15. The Boston Bruins jacket (June 6)

Just about every NHL team has a makeshift trophy that gets passed around after victories. This year's New York Rangers are using a hat, while other teams have used shovels and belts to honor the team's best player after a victory.

During the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Bruins adopted a jacket, a retro-looking number featuring the team's logo on the back, front and sleeves.

At no point was the jacket more meaningful than it was following Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Canucks.

Aaron Rome's illegal hit to Nathan Horton knocked the Bruins' playoff hero out of the game -- and the series with the Bruins already trailing in the series 2-0. The hit though lit a fire under the Bruins that never wavered.

After Game 3, the jacket hung in Horton's locker.

14. Devils flip a switch after worst start in team history (Jan. 8 - March 15)

Through 41 games, the New Jersey Devils were 10-29-2 with 33 points, last in the League and 11 points behind the 29th-place Edmonton Oilers.

The team rediscovered its winning ways when Jacques Lemaire replaced rookie coach John MacLean, who was fired in late-December.

Of all the statistics that defied logic during their 23-3-2 run, perhaps the one that reflected Devils hockey the best was the fact they allowed two goals or fewer in the final 17 games of that stretch. They rose to No. 10 in the conference and closed to within six points of the final playoff spot in the East with 13 games to play, but the hole was just too deep.

13. A pair of Game 7s after two 3-0 leads are squandered (April 26, May 12)

Chicago bounced Vancouver from the playoffs in 2009 and 1010, winning six-game, second-round series both times. It was different in 2011 -- but not without a scare.

Vancouver, the top seed, built a 3-0 series lead against the eighth-seeded Blackhawks and appeared ready to exorcise their demons. But Chicago won Games 4, 5 and 6 to force Game 7 in Vancouver. The Canucks were 1:56 away from victory, but Jonathan Toews scored a shorthanded goal to force overtime.

This time, however, the Canucks didn't fold. Alexandre Burrows scored at 5:22 of overtime to end the Blackhawks' dominance.

History repeated itself when the San Jose Sharks let a 3-0 lead slip away against the Detroit Red Wings. But just like the Canucks, the Sharks staved off the collapse by winning Game 7 on home ice. Patrick Marleau, who didn't have a point in the first six games of the series, scored the winner.

12. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins drafted No. 1 by the Oilers (June 24)

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Center - EDM
GOALS: 13 | ASST: 22 | PTS: 35
SOG: 80 | +/-: 0
For the second year in a row, the Edmonton Oilers had the first pick in the draft. After selecting Taylor Hall in 2010, the Oilers knocked it out of the park in 2011, taking Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

The 18-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., has been a force since opening night. He scored a goal against the Penguins in his first career game and has 13 goals and 34 points in 33 games. Nugent-Hopkins captured NHL Rookie of the Month honors in October and November. The last player to accomplish that was Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in 2006-07.

Nugent-Hopkins is also on pace to have the most points (85) for a rookie since Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby had 106 and 102, respectively, in 2005-06.

11. Hockey goes outside in Canada for the Heritage Classic (Feb. 20)

The NHL's first outdoor game was played between the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens in 2003 at Commonwealth Stadium. Eight years later, a second outdoor game in Canada took place at McMahon Stadium in Calgary between the Flames and Canadiens.

Temperatures were around minus-8 degrees Celsius the game, which saw Rene Bourque score twice and Miikka Kiprusoff make 39 saves in a 4-0 victory. The shutout was the first in an NHL outdoor game.

"Winning sure heats it up," the Flames' Brendan Morrison said of the cold conditions.

The game was played in front of 41,022 fans who didn't care about the freezing temperatures.


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10. Six coaches lose their jobs in about six weeks (Nov. 5 - Dec. 17)

It started when the Blues fired Davis Payne and ended when Jacques Martin was let go by the Canadiens.

Ken Hitchcock took over for Payne and has guided the Blues to the top of the Western Conference. Randy Cunneyworth will be the interim coach in the Montreal for the rest of the season.

On Nov. 28, the Capitals fired Bruce Boudreau and the Hurricanes fired Paul Maurice hours later. Boudreau didn't stay unemployed for very long -- less than three days, actually -- as he took over for Randy Carlyle in Anaheim.

On Dec. 12, the axe was dropped on Terry Murray of the Kings. He was replaced on an interim basis by assistant John Stevens, but Darryl Sutter was eventually tabbed by GM Dean Lombardi to take over on a full-time basis.

9. Rain shifts the Winter Classic to prime time (Jan. 1)

The forecast was foreboding in the days leading up to the Winter Classic between the Penguins and Capitals. Eventually, the rains came on New Year's Day, delaying the afternoon start for several hours.

The sold-out crowd at Heinz Field packed the stadium for the 8 p.m. start. The rain continued throughout the contest, but it didn't damper the excitement when Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring for the Penguins.

Two goals from Eric Fehr and Semyon Varlamov's 32 saves in the Capitals' 3-1 win in front of 68,111 rain-soaked fans.

"It was one of the best experiences of my life," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. "I can't imagine football players play every game like this. It's unbelievable. It's the kind of thing you want to do all the time, go out and play like this."

8. Max Pacioretty collides with a stanchion in Montreal (March 9)

During the second period of a traditionally intense game against the Bruins, Montreal forward Max Pacioretty cleared the defensive zone by chipping the puck past Zdeno Chara and then tried to squeeze past the defenseman along the boards, but he was shoved into the boards and hit the exposed glass at the end of the player's bench.

Pacioretty laid motionless on the ice for several minutes before being taken off on a stretcher. Chara was assessed a five-minute major penalty for interference and a game misconduct with 16 seconds left in the second period. The Canadiens went on to win the game 4-1.

Afterward, Pacioretty was diagnosed with a concussion and fractured vertebrae. He missed the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. Chara was not suspended or fined for the hit, which was termed a "hockey play" by the League.

There was some good that came out of the scary incident. The League installed curved glass in arenas at the spot where Pacioretty was injured in an effort to lessen the impact of future incidents.

7. The saga of Sidney Crosby (Jan. 1 to present)

On New Year's Day, Sidney Crosby took an accidental hit from Washington's David Steckel in the Winter Classic; four nights later, he took a big hit from the Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman and, after that hit was diagnosed with a concussion.

Not long after, the team decided their captain's season was over.

Crosby spent the 10 months that followed resting and rehabbing, waiting for clearance to make a return. Finally, he received clearance and returned Nov. 21 at home against the New York Islanders, scoring two goals and two assists in a magical return.

Crosby scored eight more points in the next seven games, but was out of the lineup again after absorbing several hits in a game against Boston on Dec. 5.

In late December, the team announced that Crosby is again suffering concussion symptoms and his return date is unknown.

6. Hockey officially returns to Winnipeg (May 31)

The Winnipeg Jets existed from 1972-96, but the franchise was relocated to Phoenix. In the years that followed, fans in Winnipeg hoped for an NHL team to return to Manitoba.

True North Sports & Entertainment, the group that purchased the Atlanta Thrashers and moved them to Winnipeg, started a campaign to sell 13,000 season tickets to the 15,004-seat MTS Center. Season tickets were made available to the public on June 4 and sold out in 17 minutes.

5. Death strikes members of the NHL family

A scout, two former players and two current athletes all died during the calendar year.

On March 13, Rick Martin died of a heart attack at the age of 59. He was part of the Buffalo Sabres' "French Connection Line" that included Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert. Martin had 384 goals and 701 points in 685 career games with the Sabres and Los Angeles Kings. A knee injury ended his career at the age of 30.

On April 7, E.J. McGuire, the vice president for NHL's Central Scouting, also died of cancer at the age of 58. McGuire was diagnosed with one of the rarest forms of cancer in December 2010 -- leiomyoscarcoma.  McGuire was the architect of many of the innovations Central Scouting pioneered in the past decade.

On June 22, legendary Flames owner Harley Hotchkiss died at the age of 83. He was instrumental in moving the Flames from Atlanta to Calgary and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 2006.

The deaths of the Rangers' Derek Boogaard, the Jets' Rick Rypien and the recently retired Wade Belak shook the NHL community.

Boogaard was sidelined for the final 51 games of the regular season due to a shoulder injury. On May 13, he died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone.

On Aug. 15, tragedy struck again as Rypien was found dead in his Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, home. Rypien had battled depression for most of his life and had said in the months leading to his death that he had received help and was making strides.

Sixteen days later, Belak was found dead in a Toronto hotel room. Belak spent 15 seasons with the Avalanche, Flames, Maple Leafs, Panthers and Predators. He was to begin a job doing TV work for the Predators this season.

4. Team plane for KHL's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crashes, kills 44 (Sept. 7)

Many of the passengers who died on this flight carrying a KHL team had ties to the NHL. Their deaths sent shockwaves throughout the NHL with almost every current player feeling the effects of the tragedy.

Former NHL players who died in the crash were Brad McCrimmon, Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins, Karel Rachunek, Josef Vasicek, Alexander Vasyunov, Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev.

In the wake of the disaster, a charity called Love for Lokomotiv began raising money for the families of those who lost loved ones. The organization was started by hockey wives across North America.

"My husband was fortunate enough to play with Pavol Demitra twice in his career, so we were quite shocked with the news that this could happen to a whole team, never mind a close friend," said Kodette LaBarbera, wife of Coyotes goaltender Jason. "We just wanted to show our support. We're thinking about Pavol's wife at home and all those other families left behind."

In December, Lokomotiv iced a new team -- comprised mostly of its youth team and loaned players from other squads -- to play its first competitive game since the crash in the first step of a long road back for the Kontinental Hockey League side.

3. Brendan Shanahan takes over as NHL disciplinarian (June 1)

After 13 years doing the job, NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell relinquished his discipline duties to Brendan Shanahan, who was named vice president of player of safety. About three weeks later, the NHL Board of Governors approved a change to Rule 48 that made any direct contact with the head a penalty, regardless of its point of origin.

The boarding rule was amended in several ways in order to put the focus on possibly dangerous contact with the boards rather than the actual point of contact.

This season, a boarding penalty will be assessed to a player who checks or pushes a defenseless player in a manner that causes the player to have a potentially violent and/or dangerous impact with the boards.

Under Shanahan, the NHL now hands out supplemental discipline decisions with a video presentation posted on to explain and show the decision to players, management and fans.

2. Board of Governors agree to realignment for 2012-13 season (Dec. 5)

With relocated Winnipeg in the Southeast Division, realignment of some sort became a necessity. When the Board of Governors convened in December, radical action turned out to be the order of the day.

Starting as early as next season, the six-division look that has existed since the 1998-99 season will switch to a four-conference look, with teams better situated based on their geographic location. There will be two seven-team conferences and two eight-team conferences.

The top-four teams from each yet-to-be-named conference will reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs and play two rounds within their conference. From there, the teams will be re-seeded based on points for the third round. It opens the door for an all-West or all-East Stanley Cup Final.

Under the new format, every team will pay at least one visit to the building of every team in the League. That will give fans the opportunity to see the League's best players in person at least once.

1. Tim Thomas carries the Bruins to first Stanley Cup in 39 years (June 15)

Tim Thomas
Goalie - BOS
RECORD: 16-5-0
GAA: 1.84 | SVP: 0.943
After a regular season in which Tim Thomas went 35-9-11 with a 1.84 GAA and record-setting .943 save percentage, he didn't take his foot off the gas or the throats of the Vancouver Canucks during the Stanley Cup Final.

Thomas went 16-9 with a 1.98 GAA and .940 save percentage during the postseason. In seven games against the Canucks, Thomas allowed eight goals.

After Vancouver's win in Game 5, Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo criticized Thomas' playing style, a comment that lit a fire under the Bruins for the final two games of the series. Maxim Lapierre scored the Game 5 winner off a big bounce off the end boards. The aggressive Thomas was caught out of position, leading to Luongo's critique afterward.

Of course, the Bruins won Games 6 and 7, Thomas walked away with the Stanley Cup and, later in June, the Vezina Trophy.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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