It wasnít supposed to go this well.
It wasnít even supposed to go at all, if you remember back to the seemingly hopeless stalemate between the NHL and the NHLPA.
If anything, it was going to be a shortened season, the first half wiped out by the work stoppage and the second half playing to near-empty arenas.
Instead, itís been everything the owners, players and fans could have ever asked for. Wild playoff races through the final week of the season. The most amazing crop of rookies in decades. League-wide parity on a level playing field. Goals. Shootouts. Attendance records.
As Edmonton ramps up for the playoffs Ė itís been so long, even Detroit looks good Ė itís hard not to shake your head at how remarkably the NHL has recovered from what could have easily been a fatal labour dispute.
Hereís a look back at the pros and cons of what might go down as the most important season in the leagueís history:
PRO: After numerous bold attempts and embarrassing retreats, the NHL finally stuck to its obstruction crackdown all year. Well, most of it, anyway. Inconsistent officiating is still a problem, but games are infinitely better than the garbage we had to sit through before.
PRO: Free to roam, the best talents in the NHL are lighting it up like theyíve been released from a cocoon. Last season Detroit led the league with 255 goals, the most by a mile. This year 255 will get you about 13th place.
CON: The Oilers might like them now Ė they wouldnít be in the post-season without their 13 loser points (most of any post-season team) Ė but no other league awards points to a losing team. Itís ridiculous.
PRO: Traditionalists rallied against the shootout, but traditionalists also steered the NHL into a quagmire before the lockout. So everyone else said to heck with you guys, give the fans what they want. Itís a goofy way to end a game, but, damn, if itís not exciting. Thinking outside the box yields a major hit.
PRO: Dallas, Detroit, Philly and Colorado were supposed to collapse when the NHL took away their $65-million crutches. Instead they rose to the top again.
Itís time to admit that they are four of the best-run organizations in the game.
CON: St. Louis. The exact opposite.
PRO: Mark Messierís retirement ceremony in New York is only a few minutes shorter than his actual career. He weeps like Todd Bertuzzi at an apology press conference, but looks a lot cooler doing it.
CON: Bertuzzi returned from his suspension and in a matter of minutes was his old, unpleasant self. By seasonís end had dragged the Canucks down with him. Oh well, at least he gets to say he was an Olympian.
CON: Did someone mention the Olympics? Canadaís brass made the tragic mistake of picking guys who had good seasons two years ago instead of players who were lighting it up now.
WEIRD: Jose Theodore did a David Duval impression, going from world beater to sieve overnight. Then he suffers the embarrassment of testing positive for a hair-growth formula. He should have played it safe; the IOC has nothing against comb-overs.
PRO: A dreadful year for Wayne Gretzky, but how he handled the adversity reminded us that greatness was never just limited to the ice.
CON: Itís unlike the media to go completely overboard, charging ahead blindly when there might be a sensational story to pile on, but when Gretzkyís assistant coach was linked to an illegal bookmaking operation youíd swear the Pope had moved into the Playboy Mansion.
Every media outlet in North America joined the frenzy, filling hours of TV and radio and pages of newsprint with speculation, rumour and worst-case scenario projections.
Turns out the facts werenít, you know, quite as titillating. So they filed the story next to Millenium Scare, 12 Miners Alive and WMDs in Iraq and moved on.
PRO: There is justice in the world. Sean Avery gets fired. Bertuzzi misses the playoffs. Bryan Marchment is injured after a knee-on-knee hit. And Ryan Smyth makes the playoffs.