NHL's final day provides hectic, historic finish
If there are a few bleary-eyed hockey fans needing an extra cup of coffee Sunday morning, they can thank about a dozen hockey teams for ensuring that the playoffs weren't 100% finalized until the San Jose Sharks defeated the Los Angeles Kings 3-2 in overtime Saturday night in the season's 1,320th and final game.
Not only was it a hectic day on the final day of the regular season, it was an historic one, as the Phoenix Coyotes won their first division title in franchise history after concluding a 2-0 roadtrip with a 4-1 victory at Minnesota. The former Winnipeg Jets and Coyotes had a combined five second-place finishes in the previous 31 years of the team's existence.
"It feels really special because you feel like when you get drafted by a team and brought in by a team that you have a job to do and your job is to win," captain and 16-year Winnipeg and Phoenix veteran Shane Doan told PhoenixCoyotes.com. "We were able to get one banner up. It only took 17 years, that's not bad. But it's nice to have something."
The Florida Panthers also won their first division title since entering the league as an expansion team in 1993 and will take part in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2000. They've won one playoff game since their Year of the Rat postseason run that ended in an NHL Finals sweep by the Colorado Avalanche in 1996. Somewhere Scott Mellanby is smiling.
The day opened with a matinee at Joe Louis Arena, where the Chicago Blackhawks punctuated their terrific play against the Detroit Red Wings this season with a 3-2 shootout win. Chicago, which finished 4-0-2 against Detroit, needed a regulation victory to surge into fifth place but should feel fortunate to settle for a six-seed, where they'll face Phoenix on the road instead of Nashville in a Central Division slugfest.
The Blackhawks appear to be peaking and enter the playoffs 12-2-4 in their previous 18 games and will be seen as a favorite heading into its first round series against the Coyotes despite the lack of home ice advantage.
"Right now we have confidence in our team game," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "Everything's going to be ratcheted up. We've got confidence at the right time of the year. Let's play with the emotion and continue to build on what got us here."
A Detroit win would have put heat on Nashville to win its final game to secure home ice advantage, though Nashville won emphatically without any pressure. They'll open the first round at home in an incredibly tough first round matchup between two teams that combined for 206 points.
The Eastern Conference took center stage after Chicago's win, beginning with the Ottawa Senators' inability to secure the seven seed in a 4-2 loss at New Jersey. That opened the door for a desperate Washington Capitals squad that surged to a well-earned 4-1 victory at Madison Square Garden and coincided with the New York Rangers' failure to capture the Presidents' Trophy. Alex Ovechkin raised his performance in an important game that lifted the Capitals out of the eighth seed, scoring 32 seconds in and setting the tone for a first period in which Washington outscored New York 3-0. As a seven seed, the Capitals will travel to Boston to open up the playoffs, while the eighth-seeded Senators will open up in New York.
"It doesn't matter which place you are in the season," Ovechkin said. "In the playoffs, it's a different season. It's different hockey. Every mistake can cost you a series and every mistake can cost you a game. In the playoffs, it's top 16 teams in the League battling for one goal. So it doesn't matter."
Washington's win put pressure on the Florida Panthers, who held serve with a 4-1 win over visiting Carolina to capture their first division title. While they'll have home ice advantage as a three-seed in their first-round series against New Jersey, they'll be seen as heavy underdogs; their minus-24 goal differential is the worst amongst playoff teams by 16 goals.
Though it didn't have any bearing on the standings, the Penguins sent a message to their cross-state first round dance partners as they knocked off the rival Flyers 4-2 behind Evgeni Malkin's 50th goal of the season and Sidney Crosby's goal and assist.
That didn't stop Philadelphia for declaring what resembled a battle cry after the game.
"There's a lot of bad blood already between the teams and there's going to be more after the series is done," Brayden Schenn said.
"It's nice to have the hatred of the city against us," Scott Hartnell said. "We thrive off that and it's going to be a bloodbath."
After Phoenix took the ice against Minnesota and earned its second consecutive 4-1 victory on a division-clinching, two-game roadtrip, Vancouver took advantage of the path to its second straight Presidents' Trophy, defeating Edmonton 3-0 behind Roberto Luongo's 17 saves.
That meant the winner of the Los Angeles-San Jose finale would draw the second-seeded St. Louis Blues, while the loser would fall to the eighth seed and travel to Vancouver to open the playoffs.
Entering the third period leading 2-0, the Kings allowed a Dan Boyle goal 35 seconds in, followed by a Patrick Marleau tally less than eight minutes later. When Boyle scored on a give-and-go from Martin Havlat with 1:02 remaining in overtime, it marked the second consecutive game the Sharks had rallied from a two-goal deficit to defeat their Southern California rivals.
For the second consecutive year, Los Angeles entered the final weekend of the season with hopes of home ice advantage in the first round before back-to-back losses to an in-state rival dropped them into the depths of the playoff picture and facing another major challenge in a first round series. Last year, Anaheim swept a home-and-home with the Kings, who fell to seventh in the conference before losing in six games to San Jose.
"I think, once they announced [clinching a playoff berth] the other night, our team was satisfied with being a playoff team," Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter said to LA Kings Insider Rich Hammond. "So now, my responsibility is to make sure they're not satisfied."
If there's any team that's definitely not satisfied, it's the Toronto Maple Leafs. By virtue of Florida's playoff berth, Toronto is the lone NHL team to fail to make the playoffs in the post-lockout era.
But even the Leafs-Habs game carried some intrigue on Saturday – after Toronto's 4-1 loss, they fell into the realm of teams eligible to come away with the first overall pick in June's NHL Draft. Currently selecting fifth overall but eligible to move up four spaces if they win the draft lottery, the Leafs' chances of selecting first overall is 8.1%, slightly better odds than you faced during the Mega Millions sweepstakes.
New York Rangers (1) vs Ottawa Senators (8)
Boston Bruins (2) vs Washington Capitals (7)
Florida Panthers (3) vs New Jersey Devils (6)
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs Philadelphia Flyers (5)
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs Los Angeles Kings (8)
St. Louis Blues (2) vs San Jose Sharks (7)
Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs Chicago Blackhawks (6)
Nashville Predators (4) vs Detroit Red Wings (5)