x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Something to cheer about as short NHL season proves sweet

The NHL's 48-game schedule provided enough action to revive the league after lockout, writes Gregg Patton.

Fans of Chicago Blackhawks celebrate after their team defeated Boston Bruins to win the Stanley Cup in Game 6 of their NHL finals hockey series in Boston.
Fans of Chicago Blackhawks celebrate after their team defeated Boston Bruins to win the Stanley Cup in Game 6 of their NHL finals hockey series in Boston.

The NHL almost blew it.

Instead, the league salvaged its 2013 season, drew legions of paying customers, crowned a deserving champion, and will breathe easy this off-season knowing its labour problems are pretty much settled for the next nine years.

The league will return next October not with labour strife, but Stanley Cup champions who poked a large hole in the theory that parity trumps all in the NHL, and that favourites do not win championships.

Chicago Blackhawks became the first team to win two titles during the eight-year salary cap era – adding to their 2010 triumph. The Hawks also were the first team since 2008 to win the Presidents' Trophy (for most points in the regular season) and the championship.

Even with salary-cap restrictions that no doubt will cost the Blackhawks a few of their players, they will play next season making an argument for the possibility of dynasties.

Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Co will try to defy the odds in a sport that rewards talent, brilliant goaltending and large doses of quirky bounces.

But it was almost the season that wasn't.

A bitter lockout cost the league its first three-and-a-half months. In the nick of time, owners and players saved a 48-game schedule. The Blackhawks were the ones that gave it an early identity, setting a record by scoring a point in each of their first 24 games.

Fittingly, the Hawks ended the season with a flash of brilliance, scoring twice in the final 78 seconds of Game 6 to win the cup against gritty Original Six rival Boston Bruins.

In between, players and teams squeezed plenty of substance into their half-full cup.

Toronto Maple Leafs shook off eight seasons of embarrassment and made the play-offs, returning a note of pride to one of the league's most popular, storied franchises.

Alex Ovechkin returned from the land of the mediocre, blazing away from the mid-point of the season to boost the struggling Washington Capitals into the post-season. After three unremarkable years, he won the scoring title with 32 goals and swiped the Hart Trophy (his third) as the league's most valuable player from Sidney Crosby.

Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar, was the dominant individual until the final month of the regular season when a freak ricochet of the puck shattered his jaw, sending him to the sidelines and out of the April drama.

Most importantly for the NHL, fans approved. The average attendance of 17,721 per game was a record high, beating the previous mark set in 2008/09.

By the end, the league had played with fire, avoided burning down its house, and lit up the sky. Who would have guessed in December?

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