Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
And so, three months later, here we finally are, more anxious than ever for the puck to drop and get this shortened NHL season underway. And what could be better than the despised, red-clad octopus-lovers from Detroit opening here in St. Louis? Every NHL team will play 48 games in around 100 days, which means a match roughly every other day. Every single meeting doubles in importance as intra-conference only games pits 15 teams challenging each other for eight playoff slots. Every overtime and shoot-out contest creates added significance as an extra point could mean the difference between a successful or a disappointing run for the playoffs. Thank you, hockey gods!
This isn't the first time the NHL has played a shortened schedule. The NHL owners under new President Gary Bettman locked the players out on October 1, 1994. The owners wanted to establish a "luxury tax" to fund small-market teams and discourage rising salaries, yet the players considered it a salary cap and staunchly opposed it. There were also disagreements about unrestricted free agency and arguments about salary arbitration and the distribution of revenues. Sound familiar? The lockout ended on January 11, 1995, with a new agreement in which the owners won a rookie salary cap and arbitration rights, while the players won more flexible free agency rights and revenue sharing options.
Play began on January 20, 1995, with a 48 game, intra-conference schedule, eerily similar to this year's lockout. It was the last season for the Nordiques in Quebec, who moved to Colorado the following year. The Bruins played their last game at the venerable Boston Garden and the Canucks played their last game at the old Pacific Coliseum. The Blackhawks opened the new United Center and the Blues welcomed the faithful to the new downtown Kiel Center. Notable first-year players included Calder Memorial Trophy winner Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Ryan Smyth and Jamie Langenbrunner. Peter Stastny, Garth Butcher and Thomas Steen played their last NHL game that year. Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr won the Art Ross Trophy with 32 goals and 70 points; Eric Lindros of the Flyers was awarded the Hart Memorial Trophy as most valuable player. The best defenseman was Norris Trophy winner Paul Coffey, while Buffalo's Dom Hasek took home the Vezina Trophy as best goaltender.
The Detroit Red Wings were the class of the league, winning the President's Trophy (and the Central Division) with 70 points on 33 wins. They were followed by Northeast Division leader Quebec (65 points), Pittsburgh (61), St. Louis (61), and Atlantic Division leader Philadelphia (60). The playoffs began on May 6 and the first round saw four huge upsets as Quebec, Boston, Pacific Division leader Calgary and St. Louis (under coach Mike Keenan) were all eliminated. The second round featured superb goaltending from Ron Hextall (Philadelphia), Martin Brodeur (New Jersey), Mike Vernon (Detroit) and Ed Belfour (Chicago), who all led their teams to the Conference Finals. The Devils only took one game at home in dispatching the Flyers in six games behind the strong play of Brodeur while the Red Wings took out the Blackhawks in five, with one game going to overtime and two into double-overtime. The Stanley Cup Finals began on June 17 and ended on June 24 with a four game sweep by the Devils and Brodeur, who only allowed seven goals against the Red Wings.
The most obvious lesson to be learned from the lockout 18 years ago is that the most successful teams during the shortened regular season sprint to the playoffs are not a cinch to win Lord Stanley's Cup. New Jersey finished a whopping 18 points behind Detroit, yet superior goaltending provided by Martin Brodeur and outstanding team defense (led by Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer) proved to be of more value in the playoffs than the potent Red Wing scoring machine, which included Sergei Federov, Paul Coffey, Steve Yzerman, Dino Ciccarelli, and Ray Sheppard. Other strong teams faltered due to injuries to key players and a lack of depth on their roster and/or in their minor league system. Success this year will depend on strong team defense and roster depth.
All this bodes well for the Blues. Even though they are a relatively young team, with only four players (Langenbrunner, Nichol, McDonald and Jackman) over 30 years of age, they are still an experienced bunch, with loads of veteran leadership. Only one player (Tarasenko) was not with the team last year. The Blues have two number-one goaltenders and depth at every position, although too many injuries on defense might force a trade from a wealth of forwards. Off to a poor start, nevertheless Peoria is well stocked with serviceable players available for recall. The Note is primed and ready, having learned what it takes from last year's playoff debacle against the Kings. There is no reason the club cannot maintain their defensive superiority from last season and improve their offensive production (and power play) in order to make the playoffs and then seriously contend for the Stanley Cup.