For Canadian hockey fans, there wasn't a more goodly moment in the past year – or in the past couple of decades, for that matter – than when Sidney Crosby(notes) screamed for the puck, got it, and whipped a low shot past goalie Ryan Miller(notes) last February. The goal, an overtime winner which delivered Olympic gold to Team Canada on home ice at the Vancouver Games – after the U.S.'s Zach Parise(notes) had tied the contest 2-2 in the final minute – immediately joined Paul Henderson's 1972 Summit Series winner and Mario Lemieux's 1987 Canada Cup clincher in the holy trinity hat trick of seminal Canadian tallies. Crosby hurled his stick and gloves high into the air, skated to the corner, turned and screamed again, his face a huge smile and his fists pumping, before being mobbed by joyous teammates. Behind him, a wall of hockey fans stood and roared, joined by millions of others from coast to coast. What a day, eh?
Crosby's joy turned to pain in the NHL playoffs, however, as his Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champions, were shockingly eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens in Round 2. The Habs had snuck into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the East, then went on a playoff ride that harkened back to the franchise's glory days and electrified its fan base. Montreal knocked off the Washington Capitals, the league's regular-season champs, in Round 1, before eliminating the Pens. The Caps had Alex Ovechkin(notes) and the Pens had Crosby – but the Habs had Jaroslav Halak(notes) in net, and that made all the difference. At least until the Eastern Conference final, when the Canadiens' dream of winning the Cup for the first time since 1993 – the last time any Canadian team claimed the NHL championship – was dashed by fellow upstart Philadelphia. Halak was traded to St. Louis in the summer, but Carey Price(notes)'s emergence in the first half of 2010-11 has given Habs fans something else to cheer.
The cheering for Crosby's Olympic winner had died down in Vancouver by the time the Canucks clinched the Northwest Division for the second year in a row and fourth time in the past six seasons. Montreal's magical playoff run notwithstanding, the Canucks have been Canada's best hope for the Cup in the post-lockout NHL. Led by the mesmerizing Sedin twins, goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes) and enviable depth up front and on defence, the Canucks were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by Chicago for the second year in a row. Last season, at least, the Blackhawks went on to win the Cup, giving the Canucks hope that they're that close to hoisting Stanley's mug themselves.
The Toronto Maple Leafs haven't made the playoffs since 2004; worse yet, the Leafs appear to be headed in the wrong direction. Toronto finished 29th in the NHL last season – or second-last, if you prefer – and they were hovering in a similar spot through 30-plus games in 2010-11. The kicker, of course, is that Leafs GM Brian Burke traded Toronto's first-round picks in 2010 and 2011 to Boston in exchange for sniper Phil Kessel(notes), so the Leafs will likely lose out on two lottery draft picks; the Bruins snagged centre Tyler Seguin(notes) at No. 2 overall last June. On paper, Toronto has a solid defence corps led by captain Dion Phaneuf(notes) and perpetual trade bait Tomas Kaberle(notes), but it hasn't translated onto the ice. The goaltending would be passable, if J-S Giguere wasn't always one kick-save away from a groin injury. The forwards are young and undersized – except for Burke's fourth line, which is all testosterone and truculence. The Leafs' rebuild enters its 44th year, with no end in sight.
Toronto's provincial rival, the Ottawa Senators, had a surprisingly satisfying 2009-10 season, finishing fifth in the East. The good times subsided as 2010 progressed, however, as the Sens dealt with goalie Pascal Leclaire(notes)'s laundry list of injuries; lost another key defenceman (this time, it was Anton Volchenkov(notes) via free agency); and, struggled to score as age might finally be catching up to captain Daniel Alfredsson(notes).
Out west, the Calgary Flames boasted an elite defence corps in front of all-world netminder Miikka Kiprusoff(notes), not to mention power forward Jarome Iginla(notes) up front. But the results didn't match the personnel, as the Flames failed to make the playoffs and the Sutter-ization of the team – Darryl is the GM, Brent the coach – came under fire. Dion Phaneuf was shipped to Toronto in January, but the shuffling of players wasn't enough to alter the Flames' fortunes. Calgary continued to freefall in 2010-11, and was in the Western Conference basement with Alberta neighbour Edmonton as the calendar came to a close.
The Edmonton Oilers cornered the Canadian market on ugly last season, finishing dead-last in the league. The Oilers endured a season-ending injury to goalie Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) that forced the team to turn to two rookie stoppers in Jeff Deslauriers(notes) and Devan Dubnyk(notes). It wasn't pretty. Ales Hemsky(notes), easily the team's most talented forward, missed 60 games after season-ending shoulder surgery, while supposed linchpin defenceman Sheldon Souray(notes) was on the shelf for 45 games (and shipped to minors at the start of 2010-11 in an attempt to shed his salary). The blue line was especially ravaged by injuries, which further exposed the inexperienced netminders. The silver lining to Edmonton's youth, lack of depth and myriad other issues came in the form of the NHL entry draft in Los Angeles, where Edmonton selected Taylor Hall(notes) with the No. 1 pick in June. Hall joined Jordan Eberle(notes) and Magnus Paajarvi(notes) as Edmonton's three-headed rookie monster entering 2010-11; a troika of skilled rookies that will carry the team's hopes going forward.