Hockey in 2010: Drama on big stages

Yahoo! Sports

When it comes to hockey, 2010 done good. Real good.

Sidney Crosby(notes) scored in overtime to win the Olympic gold medal for Canada. The Chicago Blackhawks ended a 49-year championship drought by winning the Stanley Cup. Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) signed a $100 million deal with the Devils, but might be wondering whether he should’ve taken that Kings contract instead. The Philadelphia Flyers snuck into the playoffs thanks to a shootout win in Game 82, then rolled all the way to the Cup final (and Chris Pronger(notes) has the game pucks to prove it).

Here are the top 10 hockey stories in 2010:

10. Draft drama: Taylor vs. Tyler: The 2010 NHL entry draft was a two-horse race as OHL forwards Taylor Hall(notes) and Tyler Seguin(notes) battled for the privilege of being selected No. 1 at the league’s entry draft in Los Angeles in June. The fast and skilled Hall, who had a slight edge according to most scouts, ultimately went first overall to the Edmonton Oilers; being a two-time Memorial Cup champion – and being named the tournament MVP in 2009 and 2010 – certainly helped push Hall over the top. The Boston Bruins nabbed Seguin with the No. 2 pick, which was obtained from Toronto in the Phil Kessel(notes) deal.

9. Steve Yzerman takes over in Tampa Bay: The Detroit Red Wings legend and Hall of Famer, who had spent the past four years in the management suite at Joe Louis Arena, severed his longtime ties with Hockeytown to become the Lightning’s GM. Yzerman’s patience and decision-making have been lauded – and so have his additions of coach Guy Boucher and players such as Simon Gagne(notes), Dan Ellis(notes) and Dominic Moore(notes). More significantly, Yzerman’s arrival brought credibility and stability to a franchise that badly needed it.

8. Hockey in the desert: The Coyotes endure: It was a year-long roller-coaster ride for fans in Phoenix. Bankruptcy, court battles, city council votes, taxpayer funding – not exactly the stuff of Stanley Cup dreams. The NHL-run franchise struggled at the gate – an annual hockey tradition in Arizona – until the final weeks of the 2009-10 regular season and the playoffs. Yes, the Coyotes made the playoffs for the first time in eight years, thanks largely to Ilya Bryzgalov’s(notes) goaltending and coach Dave Tippett’s speed-based system. Tippett replaced Wayne Gretzky behind the bench, and earned coach-of-the-year honors for his team’s us-against-the-world performance. The Coyotes lacked scoring punch, star power and the aforementioned fans, but the players pulled together to deliver the best regular season in franchise history (50 wins, 107 points). Phoenix nearly knocked off Detroit in the first round, and was building on that momentum in the first quarter of the 2010-11 season. Better yet, financier Matthew Hulsizer has emerged as a probable owner. Unless he turns out be another desert mirage.

7. The magical playoff run of Jaroslav Halak(notes) and the Montreal Canadiens: It’s been said before, because it’s true: Hockey is religion in Montreal. The Canadiens have won more Stanley Cups than any other franchise in NHL history, and it’s not even close. The Habs were the last Canadian team to win the Cup, in 1993. And the passion of the fans in la belle province is second to none. Win in Montreal, and you’re a hockey hero forever. So when the Habs snuck into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the East last season, there was the usual furor. But even the most ardent Canadiens fan had to know, deep down inside, that the team was the longest of long shots. However, nobody told goalie Jaroslav Halak – who supplanted Carey Price(notes), again, as Montreal’s No. 1 – and he got red-hot, carrying Montreal to series victories over the Washington Capitals, the Presidents’ Trophy champions as the NHL’s best team in the regular season, and then the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champs. The Habs fell to the Flyers in the East final, but not before they had reignited a city that had been left smoldering for far too long.

6. Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos(notes) tie for NHL goal lead: Move over, Alex Ovechkin(notes). The back-to-back winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal-scorer in 2008 and ’09, Ovechkin had company last season. In fact, Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby and Tampa Bay sophomore Steven Stamkos tied for the league lead with 51 goals, one more than Ovechkin. For Crosby, it’s another accomplishment on a long list of impressive feats, and represents a marked improvement in an area of the game – goal-scoring – that hadn’t previously been a particular strength. For Stamkos, it marked a breakout from promising youngster to legitimate NHL star. The two players picked right up where they left off, battling for the NHL goal lead through the first quarter of 2010-11, before Crosby caught fire and Stamkos slumped, creating some separation in this year’s race for the Rocket.

5. Blindside hits: Mike Richards(notes) belts David Booth(notes), and a new rule is born: Head shots, concussions, baseline testing, lateral hits to the head…some new terms have elbowed their way into hockey’s vernacular. The speed of the game and the size of the players, among other factors, have resulted in the NHL ice surface being the site of some very scary incidents in recent years. The tipping point occurred early in the 2009-10 season when Philadelphia’s Mike Richards hammered Florida’s David Booth with a hit that, according to the letter of the law, was legal. However, the sight of Booth lying on the ice, not moving, and the fact he missed most of the season due to concussion symptoms, resulted in an outcry against hits to the head. So, the NHL introduced a new rule last March – in the middle of the season, unprecedented for a rule change – that outlaws “blindside or lateral hits to the head” regardless of intent. The league handed out a handful of suspensions early in 2010-11 as players learned the fine line between bodychecking and head-hunting.

4. What Ilya Kovalchuk did on his summer vacation: A high-profile superstar testing the free agency waters isn’t anything new. But there’s never been a case quite like Ilya Kovalchuk’s. For starters, Kovalchuk entered into the UFA bonanza at age 27 and in his goal-scoring prime. He’s one of the most dangerous players in the NHL, with a singular skill set and game-breaking potential. He’s a pure scorer, plain and simple, and that’s a talent for which teams will pay big, big money. But big money doesn’t come easy. Unlike most high-profile free agents, Kovalchuk didn’t immediately sign a deal on July 1. He wanted a lengthy contract for huge dollars, and that whittled the number of potential suitors down to but a few, with New Jersey and Los Angeles ultimately emerging. First, it looked like Kovalchuk was destined for L.A. Then New Jersey nudged ahead. Then Los Angeles. New Jersey. Los Angeles. New Jersey. And back. And forth. And back. And forth. And so on, until the hockey world was ready to throw up its hands in frustration. Sign already, Ilya! So Kovalchuk did, with New Jersey, for the princely sum of $102 million over 17 years. Done deal. Except, the NHL ruled the contract violated the CBA, and Kovalchuk and the Devils were forced back to the drawing board. Finally, with a revamped 15-year, $100 million deal that had more money at the back end, Kovalchuk officially became a Devil. And then the season started – and suddenly Los Angeles is looking pretty good.

3. The Bruins’ playoff collapse: Since the beginning of time, coming back from a 3-0 series deficit in the playoffs has been a near impossibility. It just doesn’t happen. Correction: It has happened twice in the 90-plus years of the NHL’s existence, back in 1942 when Toronto shocked Detroit in the Stanley Cup final, and in 1975 when the neophyte New York Islanders rallied past the neophyte Pittsburgh Penguins. Correction No. 2: It has now happened three times in NHL history, after Boston’s implosion against Philadelphia in Round 2 last spring. Not only did the Bruins hold a 3-0 series lead, the B’s actually led 3-0 in the first period of Game 7 before the unthinkable happened. The Flyers’ Simon Gagne capped the rally with a late power-play goal in the third period. Neely wept.

2. Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup, ending the NHL’s longest drought: For the first time since Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita led Chicago to a title in 1961, the Blackhawks are NHL champions. Chicago, led by young captain Jonathan Toews(notes), scoring wingers Patrick Kane(notes) and Marian Hossa(notes) and defensemen Duncan Keith(notes) and Brent Seabrook(notes) – as well as a deep and talented supporting cast – was tested in the first round by Nashville before gaining momentum against Vancouver in Round 2 and sweeping San Jose in the Western Conference final. Antti Niemi(notes), in his first NHL season, took over the crease from Cristobal Huet(notes) in March and led the ’Hawks on their playoff jaunt. Niemi was especially strong in the first three rounds; the Stanley Cup final wasn’t a shining moment for goaltending as neither Niemi nor Philadelphia’s Michael Leighton(notes) were overly impressive. (Leighton, remember, surrendered the Cup-winning goal on Kane’s shot from a bad angle along the goal line.)

1. Sidney Crosby scores in overtime to lead Canada over the U.S. in the Olympic final: It doesn’t get any bigger than overtime in the gold-medal game at the Olympics between hockey’s biggest rivals. Canada entered the Vancouver Olympics as favorites, along with Russia and Sweden, while the U.S. was considered a cut below. But goalie Ryan Miller’s(notes) spectacular play and Team USA’s blend of toughness and talent proved to be the perfect formula as the self-proclaimed “underdogs” advanced to the gold-medal game. Canada, meanwhile, was loaded, and – after a typical slow start, including a round-robin loss to the U.S. – the superstar-laden squad hit its stride, hammering Russia 7-3 in a highly anticipated quarterfinal matchup and holding off a determined Slovak team 3-2 in the semis. That set the stage for an all-North American final, and it did not disappoint. Canada jumped out to a 2-0 lead and appeared to have glory at hand when Zach Parise(notes) scored in the final minute to force overtime. With the hockey world watching breathlessly, Jarome Iginla(notes) won a battle in the corner, Sidney Crosby screamed for the puck – and then a nation stood and cheered, and cheered and cheered, united for one magical moment in time, a moment that’s destined to join Paul Henderson’s 1972 Summit Series game-winner and Mario Lemieux’s 1987 Canada Cup clincher as the biggest goals in Canadian hockey history.

Player of the year: Crosby

Team of the year: Team Canada

Game of the year: Canada 3, USA 2, Olympic gold medal game

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